Supreme Court Reaffirms the Importance of the Sixth Amendment Right to Effective Counsel, Reversing Denial of Habeas Relief to Texas Inmate Sentenced to Death

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court remanded a capital case in Texas back to the state’s appellate court, finding that court erred in reversing an order of habeas corpus relief to Terence Andrus. The Supreme Court held that the Texas trial court had been right to hold that Andrus’ trial counsel was constitutionally deficient for failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence on his behalf at his capital sentencing proceeding.

After his conviction and sentence became final, Andrus filed a state habeas petition in which he presented a plethora of mitigation information, none of which had been presented at sentencing. For the first time in the habeas litigation, numerous facts came to light demonstrating that Andrus’ childhood was marred by parental neglect, proximity to physical and sexual abuse, instability, and mental health issues. Most notably, Andrus’ mother sold and habitually used drugs and engaged in prostitution throughout his childhood. As a child, Andrus was diagnosed with affective psychosis, and at 16 was sentenced to a juvenile detention facility, where he was prescribed high doses of psychotropic drugs and isolated for extended periods of time. Notwithstanding the existence of this extremely relevant mitigating information, defense counsel’s questioning about Andrus’ childhood at the multi-day capital sentencing proceeding spanned a total of approximately four pages of the transcript. Unsurprisingly, after the defense’s severely lacking presentation, the State declared “I have not heard one mitigating circumstance in your life,” and Andrus was sentenced to death.

In holding that Andrus’ trial counsel was constitutionally deficient, the Supreme Court cited to its 2009 decision in Porter v. McCollum, explaining “[i]t is unquestioned that under prevailing professional norms at the time of [Andrus’] trial, counsel had an ‘obligation to conduct a thorough investigation of the defendant’s background’.” Accordingly, the Court found that Andrus’ trial counsel had fallen short in several ways: 1.) he conducted almost no mitigation investigation; 2.) he caused the little information presented in mitigation to backfire as a result of his failure to investigate the mitigation; and 3.) he failed to adequately investigate the State’s aggravating evidence and, as a result, was not able to rebut it. As a witness at the habeas hearing, defense trial counsel admitted that he failed to look into or present evidence of the many tragedies and traumas of Andrus’ childhood.

Reaffirming the importance of the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel, the Court also cited to Wiggins, explaining that it was constitutionally improper for counsel to “abandon [ ] [his] investigation of Andrus’ background after having acquired only rudimentary knowledge of his history from a narrow set of sources.” For instance, though counsel met with Andrus’ mother and biological father, counsel failed to meet with Andrus’ other family members, all of whom “had disturbing stories about Andrus’ upbringing.” Further, a clinical psychologist testified at the habeas hearing that Andrus had suffered “very pronounced trauma” and PTSD from, among other things, “severe neglect” and exposure to domestic violence, substance abuse, and death, during childhood. Although trial counsel testified that he “briefly retained” a psychologist to review a portion of Andrus’ medical records and the psychologist advised that Andrus might have schizophrenia, none of this information nor any other evidence of Andrus’s mental health issues was sufficiently investigated or presented as mitigation.

Having determined that counsel’s performance was deficient and therefore satisfied the first prong of Strickland, the Court turned to prejudice, remanding for the Texas courts to assess prejudice in the first instance as it was unclear whether the summary opinion by the Texas appellate court had considered it at all. The Court explained that in evaluating prejudice, the Texas courts would need to conduct an adequate totality of the circumstances analysis, since there was a “significant question” regarding “whether the apparent ‘tidal wave’ of ‘available mitigating evidence taken as a whole’ might have sufficiently ‘influenced the jury’s appraisal’ of [Andrus’] moral culpability’.” In this circumstance, because the jury would have had to unanimously vote in favor of the death penalty, in order for prejudice to be established, there only needed to be a “reasonable probability” that at least one juror would have struck a different balance.

The majority of the Court’s adherence in this opinion to its past precedent, such as Porter and Wiggins, acknowledges the continuing importance of a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel at trial and sentencing. This decision could prove critical for inmates wishing to challenge their sentences or convictions based on ineffective assistance of counsel, in cases involving the death penalty and those that involve the imposition of other lengthy or life sentences. The decision in its entirety can be viewed here.

Nathans & Biddle LLP's lawyers have a long track record of success in post-conviction litigation. Our efforts have culminated in numerous client exonerations, the granting of new trials, and reduced sentences in multiple Maryland Circuit, Maryland appellate courts, and in the Maryland Federal District Court. We also possess vast experience presenting sentencing mitigation in all types of federal and state courts. Larry Nathans is the former Chair, of the American Bar Association (ABA) White Collar Subcommittee on Federal Sentencing and he is also the former Vice-Chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyer’s (NACDL) Post-Conviction and Sentencing Committee. Nathans & Biddle attorneys – Larry Nathans, Robert Biddle, and Booth Ripke have lead chair winning experience in a variety of post-conviction cases. Rachel Wilson has greatly added to our post-conviction and sentencing successes after she arrived at our firm after having worked at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.

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