Intellectually Disabled Man Facing Execution Inspires High Court Dissent

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court’s rejection of a case where Alabama is planning to execute an intellectually disabled man inspired a biting dissent Monday.

Matthew Reeves was 18 years old when on Nov. 27, 1996, he shot and killed a truck driver who had given him and his friends a tow after their car broke down on the side of the road.

The teen’s public defenders sought and obtained funding to have a neuropsychologist named John Goff testify at trial, but they ultimately never contacted Goff nor did they hire another expert to evaluate Reeves for intellectual disability.

It was not until Reeves was convicted and sentenced to death that Goff finally took the stand — testifying at a hearing in which new counsel claimed that the attorneys who represented Reeves at trial had been ineffective for fumbling the disability factors.

Notwithstanding the fact that Reeves had been shot in the head some months before killing the truck driver, Goff told the court that the teen’s childhood and adolescent records showed he was intellectually disabled.

A court-appointed psychologist named Kathleen Ronan had testified at the sentencing hearing that Reeves was on “the borderline of mental retardation,” but this doctor explained before the appeals court that her earlier evaluation was limited.

Despite having been tapped to testify at sentencing, Ronan said she was asked only to evaluate whether Reeves was competent to stand trial, and that she was not requested to undertake a sentencing-phase evaluation or extensive clinical evaluation regarding mental retardation.

In ruling against Reeves, the circuit court criticized the teen’s failure to submit testimony by the trial attorneys who failed to represent him effectively.

The Alabama Supreme Court declined to take up the case after the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the case as well.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor balked Monday, saying she would summarily reverse because the underlying proceedings were tainted by constitutional error.

“There can be no dispute that the imposition of a categorical rule that counsel must testify in order for a petitioner to succeed on a federal constitutional ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim contravenes our decisions requiring an objective inquiry into the adequacy and reasonableness of counsel’s performance based on the full record before the court,” Sotomayor wrote, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. “Even Alabama does not defend such a rule. Instead, the dispute here is whether the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in fact imposed such a rule in this case. I believe it plainly did so. For that reason, I respectfully dissent from the denial of certiorari.”

Sotomayor’s dissent emphasizes that “Reeves upheld his end of the evidentiary bargain.”

“The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, on the other hand, did not,” she added.

Whereas Reeves highlighted his counsel’s constitutionally deficient omissions and produced evidence that his counsel was made aware of several red flags indicating intellectual disability, the Alabama court “never explained, in light of the substantial record before it, why the choices Reeves’ counsel made were reasonable,” Sotomayor wrote.

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