In Death Penalty Case, U.S. Supreme Court Reaffirms Importance of Right to Effective Counsel

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On June 29, 2010, the United States Supreme Court reversed Georgia death row inmate Demarcus Sears’s case because his trial attorney failed to thoroughly investigate mitigating evidence and did not present compelling evidence that could have resulted in a sentence other than death. The Court emphasized that a trial lawyer can fall short of his constitutional obligation to investigate and present mitigating evidence even if he puts on some evidence about the defendant at the penalty phase.

In preparation for the penalty phase of his trial in 1993, Demarcus Sears’s lawyer did a cursory investigation into mitigation evidence. Counsel talked to witnesses handpicked by Demarcus’s mother. During the penalty phase, counsel presented seven witnesses who testified that Demarcus came from a middle-class background; his childhood was stable, loving, and uneventful; and a death sentence would devastate his family.

New lawyers later uncovered a wealth of compelling evidence showing that, in fact, Demarcus’s home life was anything but tranquil: his parents had a physically abusive relationship and divorced when Demarcus was young; he suffered sexual abuse at the hands of an adolescent male cousin; his mother’s “favorite word for referring to her sons was ‘little mother f**kers”; and his father bullied and degraded him.

Most significantly, evidence showed that Demarcus had significant brain damage as a result of several serious head injuries he suffered as a child, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, which left him unable to control impulses and make rational choices.

When faced with this new evidence in postconviction proceedings, the Georgia state courts held that there was no need to grant Mr. Sears a new trial because his trial lawyer did present some mitigation evidence during the penalty phase. Mr. Sears appealed the state courts' denial of postconviction relief to the United States Supreme Court.

This week, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the state court wrongly assumed that trial counsel made reasonable choices about what to present to the jury even though counsel had not first conducted a thorough investigation. The Supreme Court emphasized that, because counsel’s investigation was so obviously inadequate, counsel could not make reasonable decisions about what to present to the jury.

More importantly, the Court emphasized that simply presenting some evidence at the penalty phase does not satisfy counsel's Sixth Amendment obligation to provide effective representation. The Court has “found deficiency and prejudice in other cases in which counsel presented what could be described as a superficially reasonable mitigation theory during the penalty phase.” It emphasized: “We certainly have never held that counsel’s effort to present some mitigation evidence” - but not the significant mitigating evidence an adequate investigation would have uncovered - means counsel did what the Constitution requires.

The Court vacated the Georgia Supreme Court's decision and sent Mr. Sears's case back for the state court to conduct a proper review of his ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim. Specifically, the Court directed the state court to evaluate the newly uncovered evidence of Mr. Sears's significant mental and psychological impairments along with the mitigating evidence presented at trial and in postconviction to determine whether he was prejudiced by his trial lawyer's inadequate investigation.