Justices Give Death-Row Inmate Gets New Shot at Habeas Claim

The empty courtroom is seen last year at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington as the justices prepare final decisions of the high court’s 2019 term. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court sided Monday with a man on death row in Texas whose jury never heard mitigating evidence of his troubled childhood because of his lawyer’s deficient performance.

“I am ecstatic for my client — although this is just one step toward relief in the form of a new trial, which I hope we will be able to secure one day soon,” said Gretchen Sween, an Austin-based lawyer for Terence Andrus.

“The Supreme Court’s opinion really restores faith in the judicial process, what happens when those with the power and intellect to educate all adjudicators take the time to drill down into the record of what did and did not occur in an individual case to provide guidance for addressing systemic problems in death-penalty cases,” Sween added.

As noted in Monday’s opinion — decided by the court solely on the briefings without oral arguments — Andrus is on death row in connection to a botched carjacking he attempted outside a Kroger supermarket in 2008. High on marijuana laced with PCP, Andrus fired multiple shots, killing both the owner of the car he was trying to steal and a woman in a nearby car.

Though prosecutors presented evidence of a violent past at Andrus’ trial, it was only in habeas proceedings years later that “the grim facts of Andrus’ life history,” as the Supreme Court put it, came to light.

The ruling notes that Andrus was one of five children, and that their upbringing largely fell to him while his mother would spend entire weekends or weeks away binging on drugs. Since Andrus had been 6, his mother sold drugs out of the apartment and turned to prostitution to support her habit.

“When she did spend time around her children, she often was high and brought with her a revolving door of drug-addicted, sometimes physically violent, boyfriends,” the ruling states.

The opinion goes on to say that Andrus was “all but suicidal” after an 18-month stint in juvenile detention where “he was steeped in gang culture, dosed on high quantities of psychotropic drugs, and frequently relegated to extended stints of solitary confinement.”

At his murder trial in 2008, however, the jury heard none of this evidence but rather testimony from Andrus’ mother that there were no drugs in her house.

Though the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with Andrus that the performance of his trial lawyer had been deficient, it ruled against him on the basis that Andrus failed to show this performance hurt him with the jury.

The Supreme Court vacated that judgment Monday, calling it unclear whether the Texas appeals court even considered the issue of prejudice as required by the 1984 case Strickland v. Washington.

While the 19-page lead opinion does not indicate which judges supported the vacatur, a 6-page dissent shows that Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch were opposed.

“The CCA [Criminal Court of Appeals] had before it strong aggravating evidence that Andrus wantonly killed two innocent victims and shot a third; that he committed other violent crimes; that he has a violent, dangerous, and unstable character; and that he is a threat to those he encounters,” Alito wrote, joined by the others. “The CCA has already held once that Andrus failed to establish prejudice. I see no good reason why it should be required to revisit the issue.”

Charann Thompson with the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office did not return a request for comment Monday.

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