Monday, May 14, 2007

On Schriro v. Landrigan

Ah, another 5-4 decision.

Schriro v. Landrigan explores an interesting question. It has been established by Supreme Court precedent that defendants sentenced to death are entitled to an appeal if they can sufficiently prove that their attorney did not defend them properly. However, in this case, the defendant refused to allow his attorney to present mitigating information (in this case, testimony from his mother and his ex-wife) and even challenged the court to "bring on" the death penalty. However, after learning about a long-standing mental illness that his attorney did not discover, the defendant sought an evidentiary hearing claiming that he was improperly represented by his attorney. The District Court Judge refused to grant a hearing, based on the defendant's actions at trial. However, the Court of Appeals reversed, arguing that the attorney did not investigate at a constitutionally sufficient level (the attorney did not uncover or present evidence of the aforementioned psychological illness that could help explain defendant's actions). The Supreme Court reverses, arguing that even if the attorney had uncovered evidence of this illness, defendant would have refused to allow such evidence to be presented. As one might expect, the Court divided along ideological lines, with Thomas writing the majority opinion and joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito and with Stevens writing the minority opinion and joined by Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer.

At first reading, I sided with the majority, but upon deeper reflection, I return to my liberal roots and side with the minority. I think this ruling harms the administration of justice. The fact of the matter is that this defendant wants to present new evidence that his attorney was too incompetent to uncover. Even the majority admits that the attorney was incompetent to not find evidence of mental illness. But, the majority bases its opinion on hypotheticals: the defendant "would have" refused to allow such evidence to be presented. We can't know that for sure, and after all, it seems like the defendant explicitly wants such information to be presented. If the defendant had been confronted with the fact that he had suffered from a mental illness, he may very well have been willing to allow such information to be presented at trial. Or maybe not. But the point is that we can't know for sure. And the Supreme Court shouldn't be basing opinions on "maybes."

If the only mitigating evidence had been the testimony of defendant's mother and ex-wife (the evidence that he explicitly refused to have presented), I would agree with the ruling entirely. However, there was other (perhaps more persuasive) mitigating evidence that the attorney did not uncover. Such a failure of investigation would not stand up to the scrutiny of Supreme Court precedent. The attorney clearly did a constitutionally insufficient job here. But, the Supreme Court is basically saying "That's okay, because the defendant let him get away with it, even though he didn't know the extent of his attorney's incompetence."

The fact of the matter is this: the defendant never said that the attorney should not present evidence of mental illness (indeed, neither the attorney nor the defendant knew about it at the time), and the Supreme Court is acting out of line to play the role of psychic, predicting what defendant would have done. It seems blatantly obvious that the defendant does want such information presented, and I think he is entitled to an evidentiary hearing to investigate the incompetence of his attorney. Really, I think this decision just represents a fundamental split over the death penalty more broadly. The majority wants it to be easier to administer, and the minority wants it to be harder to administer. Me? I'm all for the death penalty, but not when there is evidence left unexplored. This evidence deserves to see the light of day, and this attorney's incompetence should be exposed.

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