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Saturday, May 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Justices Take Up Death Row Inmate’s Challenge

WASHINGTON (CN) - A man on death row in Texas will get another chance to argue that his trial counsel was constitutionally deficient after the Supreme Court took up his case Monday.

Robert Mitchell Jennings was sentenced to death for the 1988 murder of Houston police officer Elston Howard.

Prosecutors showed that Howard was in the process of arresting the clerk an adult bookstore when Jennings interrupted with the intent of robbing the place. He shot Howard four times in the back and head before robbing the store clerk.

While the state presented evidence that Jennings had been engaging in criminal activity since he was 14, the defense relied only on a jail chaplain's testimony that Jennings was not "incorrigible."

Jennings claimed ineffective assistance in a 1996 petition for habeas relief, saying his family could have been called to testify about his disadvantaged background, and that there was a 1978 psychological report suggesting that Jennings had "mild organic brain dysfunction" and was mildly mentally retarded.

In finding that the defense team had given Jennings an adequate defense, a state court found that the decision not to call the defendant's family was a reasonable trial strategy.

Countering the suggestion that Jennings suffered from mental defect, the court cited evidence that Jennings was smart. While incarcerated, Jennings received his G.E.D., completed over 40 hours of college credit, and obtained both a barber's license and butcher's certificate.

A federal judge nevertheless granted Jennings habeas relief in 2009, saying that the inmate's defense team should have presented evidence of Jennings' disadvantaged background. The court also said the defense should have uncovered the 1978 psychological report and should have performed another mental health investigation.

The 5th Circuit reversed this past July, however, finding that Jennings failed to establish prejudice.

In granting Jennings a writ of certiorari Monday, the Supreme Court followed its custom of not issuing any comment.

Jennings will proceed in forma pauperis, according to the order.

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