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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, February 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Man on Death Row Loses Habeas Bid in High Court

(CN) - The full 9th Circuit erred in granting the habeas petition of a "psychotic" death-row prisoner who failed to bring all of the evidence to the trial court, a majority of the Supreme Court ruled on Monday.

Scott Lynn Pinholster was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for his role in the 1982 stabbing deaths of two men. The victims had interrupted the robbery of a drug dealer's home being committed by Pinholster and two accomplices.

While Pinholster represented himself during the guilt phase of the trial, the jury learned that Pinholster was an admitted white supremacist and proud of his history of burglary. Pinholster had claimed he couldn't have stabbed the two victims to death because his weapon of choice was a gun. Prosecutors showed that the proceeds of the robbery amounted to just $23 and a quarter ounce of marijuana.

The California Supreme Court twice denied Pinholster habeas relief, but a federal judge granted the petition after concluding Pinholster's attorney failed to present evidence of Pinholster's epilepsy, severe mental illness and brain damage. After a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed, finding that Pinholster would have received the same sentence with effective attorneys, a full 9th Circuit panel reheard the case and granted the habeas petition.

Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit had a led a dissent of the 9th Circuit, calling Pinholster's appeal "habeas-by-sandbagging."

When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in November, the justices focused on whether the federal appeals panel 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. Monday, they concluded that it had not.

Three of the justices fully joined in the opinion authored by Justice Clarence Thomas. Four other justices joined only partially, with two issuing separate opinions. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan joined that dissent in part.

Thomas disagreed with Pinholster's argument that the courts were entitled to consider evidence presented to the federal habeas court, which had granted him an evidentiary hearing.

Since the 9th Circuit ruled that the state-court record also supported a decision granting Pinholster's habeas petition in the event that the new federal evidence was excluded, the Supreme Court also considered whether Pinholster could have benefitted at trial by more effective counsel. Again, they ruled against the inmate.

Pinholster had claimed that the defense attorneys appointed for him during the sentencing phase failed to inform the jury about the criminal, mental and drug problems among his family members. He also argued that the lawyers should have mounted evidence of Pinholster's academic history and his medical and mental health history, including his epileptic disorder.

Thomas ruled that the lawyers had done their best with an unsympathetic client who got on the jury's bad side while representing himself during the guilt phase.

"Even if his trial counsel had performed deficiently, Pinholster also has failed to show that the California Supreme Court must have unreasonably concluded that Pinholster was not prejudiced," Thomas wrote. "There is no reasonable probability that the additional evidence Pinholster presented in his state habeas proceedings would have changed the jury's verdict," he continued.

In a 41-page dissent, Sotomayor wrote that federal courts should not have to "turn a blind eye" to new evidence, and that Pinholster adequately presented an ineffective counsel defense to the state court. Ginsburg and Kagan joined only in Sotomayor's second conclusion.

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