(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday dealt a blow to a death-row inmate who had successfully appealed his murder conviction in federal appeals court. The justices rejected the notion that his defense attorneys should have dug up more mitigating evidence before sentencing.
Robert Van Hook was convicted of aggravated murder and robbery for the 1985 murder of a man he met at a gay bar in Cincinnati.
After spending several hours drinking with a man named David Self, Van Hook and Self left the bar for Self's apartment. There, Van Hook "lured Self into a vulnerable position" and attacked him, first strangling him and then mutilating his body with a knife, according to ruling.
Van Hook had tried to cover his tracks by stuffing the knife and other incriminating evidence into the body and smearing his fingerprints. He then fled with the victim's valuables.
Six weeks later, he confessed to police in Florida.
Van Hook waived his right to a jury trial, and a three-judge panel convicted him and sentenced him to death. His appeals were rejected by the Ohio courts.
In 1995, he filed a habeas petition in federal court.
A panel of the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal of the petition, a decision remanded twice by the full circuit.
In its third ruling, the 6th Circuit panel ruled for Van Hook on the sole basis that his attorneys had improperly investigated and presented mitigating evidence at sentencing. Specifically, the judges said Van Hook's attorneys had waited until he was found guilty to begin digging into his background.
But the Supreme Court said the appellate panel had applied the American Bar Association's 2003 guidelines to a case prosecuted nearly two decades earlier.
"Judging counsel's conduct in the 1980s on the basis of these 2003 guidelines - without even pausing to consider whether they reflected the prevailing professional practice at the time of trial - was error," the court wrote in the per curiam decision.
The high court said Van Hook's attorneys had complied with the prevailing standards of the times.
"This is not a case in which the defendant's attorneys failed to act while potentially mitigating evidence stared them in the face," the court wrote.
"It is instead a case ... in which defense counsel's 'decision not to seek more' mitigating evidence from the defendant's background 'than was already in hand' fell 'well within the range of professionally reasonable judgments," the justices concluded, quoting Supreme Court precedent in Strickland v. Washington (1984).