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Justices Review Role of Evidence in Habeas Cases

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday considered whether a federal court can overturn a state criminal conviction when the prisoner failed to bring all the evidence before the state court.

Scott Lynn Pinholster received a death sentence for murder, and California state courts denied post-conviction relief without an evidentiary hearing.

A federal judge ordered an evidentiary hearing and granted habeas relief, finding that Pinholster's trial attorneys failed to present evidence of Pinholster's epilepsy, severe mental illness and brain damage.

The 9th Circuit reversed, finding that Pinholster would have received the same sentence despite the evidence his attorneys could have presented in state court, but did not. However, a full 9th Circuit panel reheard the case and granted the habeas petition, concluding that Pinholster's counsel had performed inadequately.

The Supreme Court justices tried to determine whether the 9th Circuit had decided the case on the basis of the facts from the state court hearing alone, and not the additional evidence Pinholster brought at the district court hearing.

"[Y]ou have to live with what they wrote," Justice Antonin Scalia told Pinholster's attorney, Sean Kennedy, a California federal public defender. "And the basis of their decision included additional facts."

Justice Anthony Kennedy said the 9th Circuit found the additional facts compelling, but said that even without them, the facts raised in state court about Pinholster's childhood supported granting habeas relief on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Chief Justice John Roberts said that under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which allows a federal court to overturn a state court's habeas decision if it was based on "unreasonable" application of federal law, the court would have to find Pinholster's lawyers' behavior "objectively unreasonable."

But Pinholster's lawyers, after obtaining a psychiatrist's report, chose to put only the defendant's mother on the stand, Roberts said.

"We've said those are reasonable choices," the chief justice said.

Sean Kennedy said the attorneys didn't make a "reasoned strategic decision" to use the mother's testimony and argued that counsel failed to make a connection at the state hearing between traumatic head injuries Pinholster received as a child and their affect on his behavior.

"[T]he presentation was incomplete," Sean Kennedy argued.

"Certainly this evidence could have been presented," Justice Kennedy said.

Supervising Deputy Attorney General James Bilderback said that accepting the development of evidence at later stages, after a determination had been made about the reasonableness of the state court's decision, would lead to situations where claims changed based on new facts in federal court, causing the claims to be substantially transformed.

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