(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of an Alabama man who claimed his attorneys failed to present key evidence of his borderline mental retardation. The justices said the defense made a strategic decision, not a negligent omission.
Holly Wood shot and killed his ex-girlfriend as she slept in her Troy, Ala., home in 1993.
Wood lost his appeal in state court, but won habeas relief in federal court. The district court criticized the defense for putting an inexperienced attorney in charge of the penalty phase. According to the federal judge, the state court’s holdings constituted “an unreasonable application of federal law.”
It ordered the state to either resentence Wood to life without parole or conduct a new sentencing hearing.
The Supreme Court upheld the 11th Circuit’s reversal, saying it wasn’t “unreasonable” to conclude that Wood’s attorneys had made a strategic decision not to introduce evidence of Wood’s mental deficiencies.
“Most of the evidence Wood highlights … speaks not to whether counsel made a strategic decision, but rather to whether counsel’s judgment was reasonable – a question we do not reach,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the 7-2 majority.
Dissenting justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Kennedy saw no reason to have omitted the mitigating evidence from the penalty phase, even if Wood’s attorneys “made a perfectly sensible decision” not to introduce the evidence at trial.
“There is a world of difference between a decision not to introduce evidence at the guilt phase of a trial and a failure to investigate mitigating evidence that might be admissible at the penalty phase,” Stevens wrote.