Mentally Retarded Man’s Murder Trial Was Unfair

     CHICAGO (CN) – Lawyers failed to properly assist a man with a first grade reading level whom prosecutors deemed fit to stand trial for murder, the 7th Circuit said.
     Melvin Newman had been just 16 years old with an IQ of 62 when he turned himself over to police in 2001 for the murder of Andrew Dent.
     At a jury trial, Newman’s only responses to the judge’s questions were “yes, Sir,” and “no, Sir,” even when those responses were inappropriate. He responded “no, Sir,” for example, after the judge informed Newman of his right not to testify against himself and then asked: “And knowing all of this, your constitutional rights to testify and not testify and having discussed it with your mother and your attorney, what is your wish?”
     The judge rephrased the question: “You don’t want to testify, is that correct?”
     Newman again responded, “No, sir.”
     After he was convicted, the Illinois trial court sentenced him to 47 years in prison.
     Newman then sought post-conviction relief because of ineffective assistance from counsel who failed to seek a hearing on whether Newman was fit to stand trial.
     Despite “a wealth of evidence” about Newman’s cognitive deficits, the trial court denied his motion, according to the 7th Circuit’s ruling.
     A three-judge panel with the federal appeals court affirmed Friday after U.S. District Judge Robert Dow Jr. granted Newman habeas relief.
     The ruling notes that clinical psychologist Antoinette Kavanaugh testified that Newman’s mental deficiencies “should have been apparent to anyone who attempted to have a conversation with [him] and posed questions to him that required more than a yes or no answer.”
     Kavanaugh found Newman did not understand legal concepts such as “witness” or “evidence,” and could not explain the roles of the prosecutor, defense attorney, judge or jury.
     Tests revealed Newman’s reading comprehension skills were that of a 6-year-old, his listening comprehension that of a 4-year-old, and mathematics abilities equal to those of a 5-year-old.
     In addition, a reading specialist at the juvenile center where Newman stayed while he was on trial stated that “it was most evident to [her] that [Newman] didn’t understand things … when he was talking … about his case. He had no clue and it was obvious that he had no clue.”
     Daniel Dillon, another teacher at the detention center, testified that Newman was “one of the lowest students” he had ever taught, and did not know his ABCs. He said Newman would learn how to spell “cat,” then forget the next day.
     Dillon said he did not believe Newman was capable of understanding concepts like “constitutional right to testify,” or “second degree murder jury instruction.”
     In his testimony before the District Court, Judge Dow found “Newman’s mental acuity is noticeably lower than any other witness who has testified at any proceeding over which the undersigned judge has presided.”
     The 7th Circuit’s opinion notes how Newman’s trial attorney, Michael Johnson, “was constitutionally deficient” in failing to investigate Newman’s fitness and request a fitness hearing.
     “Based on the entire record, there is a reasonable probability that Newman would have been found unfit to stand trial,” Judge John Tinder wrote for the panel.
     The evidence established the Newman was unable to understand legal terms or concepts, and could not make a rational choice about whether to request a jury trial, or whether to testify, the 31-page opinion found.
     “Not only did the evidence establish that at the time of trial Newman could not understand the nature and purpose of the proceedings against him, it also established that he could not assist in his own defense,” Tinder wrote. “The meager assistance that Johnson says Newman gave him, such as identifying houses in his neighborhood and identifying his girlfriend’s brother as a possible witness (one whom Johnson believed wouldn’t help but would hurt the defense), does not constitute meaningful assistance.” (Parentheses in original.)

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