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Justices Give Death Row Inmate Second Chance

(CN) - The Supreme Court has given a death row inmate a chance to state his claim of ineffective counsel after his lawyers failed to raise claims of childhood brain damage as a factor during sentencing.

Lawrence Jefferson, who was sentenced to death for beating a co-worker to death during a fishing trip, had claimed unsuccessfully that his lawyers were "constitutionally inadequate" because they failed to investigate his mother's testimony that Jefferson's head was ran over by a car when he was 2 years old.

Doctors testified that Jefferson has "permanent brain damage" that "causes abnormal behavior" over which he "has no substantially limited control," the justices wrote.

According to the ruling, Jefferson's condition causes emotional dullness, restless or aggressive characteristics, impulsiveness and outbursts of rage.

Experts testified during trial that Jefferson is neither "psychotic nor retarded," but that he has "severe cognitive disabilities" that alter his "ability to plan and coordinate his actions, to be aware of the consequences of his behavior, and to engage in premeditated or intentional acts."

A psychologist recommended testing to rule out brain damage. But his attorneys, despite having police reports and hospital records recounting the head injury, did not have him tested.

His attorneys argued that they didn't pursue the testing because the doctor who issued the formal report told them that further investigation "may be a waste of time because the rest of [his] report had said that [Jefferson] was non-psychotic," according to the ruling.

After a back-and-forth in various courts, Jefferson appealed to the Supreme Court, asking it to review his claim of ineffective counsel.

"Accordingly, we believe it necessary for the lower courts to determine on remand whether the state court's factual findings warrant a presumption of correctness, and to conduct any further proceedings as may be appropriate in light of their resolution of that issue."

The justices, however, expressed no opinion as to whether Jefferson's Sixth Amendment rights were violated.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Scalia said it is the first time Jefferson has made such a claim, and therefore it can't be raised on appeal.

"The court insists ... that if we squint at them long enough we can see in Jefferson's briefs ... a challenge to the state court's fact-finding process," Scalia wrote.

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