Refused Death-Penalty Case Sparks Misgivings

WASHINGTON (CN) – Though they agreed that the case did not merit review, Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg voiced grave concerns Monday at the rejection of a death-penalty challenge.

Awaiting execution in Florida, Robert Peede petitioned for habeas relief on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing.

Though a federal judge agreed, finding it probable that Peede would have received a different sentence had the attorney present mitigating evidence concerning Peede’s mental health and difficult childhood, the 11th Circuit reversed.

“In its view,” Sotomayor summarized, “Peede could not establish that he was prejudiced by any deficiency of counsel because the ‘new mitigation evidence … posed a doubled-edge-sword dilemma’ in that ‘the new information could have hurt as much as it helped.’”

While the Eleventh Circuit concluded that double-edged “post-conviction evidence is usually insufficient to warrant habeas relief,” Sotomayor said Monday that the court’s precedent flatly bars blanket rules that foreclose a showing of prejudice because the new evidence is double-edged.

Joined in her three-paragraph opinion by Ginsburg, Sotomayor said courts have a duty to consider the evidence in context, not in isolation, “regardless of whether it is considered to be double-edged.”

“Considering the posture of this case, under which our review is constrained by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, I cannot conclude the particular circumstances here warrant this court’s intervention,” Sotomayor added. “That said, the Eleventh Circuit’s consideration of Peede’s claim is deeply concerning. The ultimate question at issue in a case like this is whether ‘there is a reasonable probability that [the jury] would have struck a different balance.’ A truncated consideration of new mitigating evidence that simply dismisses it as double edged does nothing to further that inquiry.”

Sotomayor noted that she made a similar point about postconviction evidence consideration earlier this year when she dissented from the denial of certiorari in Trevino v. Davis.

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