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Poor lawyers in death sentence { June 26 2003 }

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Supreme Court Throws Out Death Sentence for Maryland Man
Decision Sets New Standards for Right to Effective Counsel

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2003; 3:26 PM

The Supreme Court today threw out the death sentence of a Maryland man because of the poor performance of the lawyers who were appointed to fight on his behalf, in a ruling that puts new teeth into capital defendants' constitutional right to effective counsel.

A 7-2 majority of the court ruled that lawyers for Kevin Wiggins, convicted in 1989 of killing 77-year-old Florence Lacs of Woodlawn, Md., "fell short of professional standards" when they failed to probe Wiggins' troubled background for evidence which, the court ruled, might well have persuaded the jury to give him life imprisonment instead of death. And, the court held, Maryland's Court of Appeals had unreasonably applied the Supreme Court's standards in deciding otherwise.

"The mitigating evidence counsel failed to discover and present in this case is powerful" and "relevant to assessing a defendant's moral culpability," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the opinion for the court. "Wiggins experienced severe privation and abuse in the first six years of his life while in the custody of his alcoholic, absentee mother. He suffered physical torment, sexual molestation, and repeated rape during his subsequent years in foster care."

The quality of legal counsel in capital cases has emerged as a major source of public concern over the administration of capital punishment. But the Supreme Court's definition of unconstitutionally inept attorney performance, set out in a 1984 decision written by O'Connor, discouraged judicial second-guessing of lawyers' decisions. Since then, the Supreme Court had struck down only one death sentence over ineffective assistance of counsel.

Today's decision sends a signal to lower courts and state governments that the 1984 standards have real consequences and that the justices may regulate capital defense counsel more vigorously.

"I think the court made a strong statement about the duty to investigate in this case," said David Bruck, a Columbia, S.C.-based lawyer who represents capital defendants. "There is a real neglect of the right to counsel in capital cases, and almost everywhere in the country it's going to be much harder for reviewing courts to ignore the results of that than it was before today."

Research on behalf of defendants is a critical factor in capital cases partly because defendants may present sentencing juries with so-called "mitigating" evidence -- often involving past abuse -- that casts them in a more sympathetic light.

The result in Wiggins' case is all the more striking in view of the high legal hurdles the court and Congress have erected to federal-court challenges, through the legal device known as habeas corpus, of state criminal judgments.

Under a 1996 federal law designed to limit death-penalty appeals in federal court, Wiggins had to show not only that his counsel was inadequate and harmed his chances of acquittal, but also that the state judges that determined otherwise had unreasonably interpreted the Supreme Court's precedents on the issue--in particular the 1984 ruling, Strickland v. Washington, which said only that "counsel has a duty to make reasonable investigations or to make a reasonable decision that makes particular investigations unnecessary."

Perhaps one measure of the strength of Wiggins' case is that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a strong supporter of limiting habeas corpus and one of the justices least sympathetic to death-penalty appeals, voted to uphold his claim.

O'Connor noted limits to the court's holding. It does not mean lawyers must investigate "every conceivable line of mitigating evidence," she wrote, or that they are required to pursue a mitigation defense in every case. But in cases where lawyers make such strategic choices based on partial investigations, then the limitations of the investigations must themselves be supported by "reasonable professional judgments."

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Scalia wrote that one of Wiggins' lawyers had testified that he did know of his client's troubled background, and that it was not unreasonable for the Maryland court to have accepted that testimony.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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