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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Tennessee Prisoner’s Death Sentence Vacated

NASHVILLE (CN) - A federal judge vacated a prisoner's death sentence last week due to ineffective counsel during the sentencing phase of his murder trial.

David Duncan was convicted in 1983 for the first-degree murder and aggravated rape of convenience store clerk Ruby Burgess during a robbery. He said his attorney William Ligon didn't investigate or present mitigating evidence at sentencing, including Duncan's psychological impairments, drinking and drug use and difficult childhood.

U.S. District Judge John Nixon granted in part Duncan's habeas corpus petition March 4 because he established that he was prejudiced by ineffective counsel during sentencing.

"Petitioner's poverty, cognitive impairments, borderline IQ and 4th grade academic functioning level at the time of the crime are all inherently mitigating. Although different terminology might have been used by experts at the time of petitioner's trial, and in fact different experts might have necessarily been called at the time, the substance and effect of the testimony would have been the same," Nixon wrote. "Petitioner's jury did not hear any of this evidence because, having failed to reasonably investigate and prepare any case at sentencing, his counsel was 'at a loss for words' at his penalty hearing. Confidence in a sentence reached without consideration of any of those facts is gravely undermined and renders petitioner's sentencing fundamentally unfair."

Nixon denied Duncan's petition on a number of other grounds - including alleged ineffectiveness regarding crime scene and fingerprint evidence, evidence about other suspects, failure to raise claims on appeal, and failure to object to the presence of KKK members in the courtroom - but still vacated his death sentence.

"Petitioner is entitled to federal habeas relief from his sentence of death, based upon the prejudicial ineffective assistance of his trial counsel at sentencing," Nixon wrote. "His death sentence will therefore be vacated, subject to the state's right to commence new sentencing proceedings consistent with this ruling. In all other respects, the petition will be denied."

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