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Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Explained by Criminal Defense Counsel

Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U. S. ____ (2011), No. 09–1088.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Boulder, Colorado explains Death Penalty Law relating to Habeas Corpus, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), and Ineffective Assistance of Counsel.

Facts: A jury in the State of California convicted Mr. Pinholster of murder where he and his cohorts robbed and killed a drug dealer. After the trial on the merits (and the subsequent conviction that resulted), the prosecution sought and the jury imposed the death penalty for Mr. Pinholster. However, three weeks prior to the sentencing phase trial, the sentencing attorney sought and obtained an evaluation from a doctor who found that Mr. Pinholster suffered only anti-social personality disorder and no other mental illness. The attorney did not provide the doctor with documentation of the years of abuse Mr. Pinholster suffered since he was a small child. Further, seemingly the doctor did not know the young Mr. Pinholster was in and out of institutions until he was 10 as a result of mental health issues. From age 10 on, Mr. Pinholster had been institutionalized – first in a mental hospital and then when they folded their hands and gave up, the state conjured up some juvenile charges, and the boy then was incarcerated in the juvenile prison system in California. According to his brother, Mr. Pinholster hardly had anytime, since age 10, outside an institution. None of this was brought to the jury’s attention. The sentencing phase lawyer only called Mr. Pinholster’s mother who did him no favors – she minimized his abuse and the institutional periods, and claimed all her kids were good kids. According to Justice Sotomayor, the mother did not testify as a defense of her children, but as a defense to her poor parenting skills. Thus, not surprisingly, the jury sentenced Mr. Pinholster to death.

At the 35(c) hearing in state court (examining the (in)effectiveness of trial counsel as well whether the obtained conviction was (un)constitutional), the attorneys did not show all the evidence that the Federal District Court heard at a habeas corpus hearing. At the hearing in federal court Mr. Pinholster’s attorneys called additional experts to refute the original doctor who found Mr. Pinholster suffered only antisocial personality disorder. The state claimed the Federal District Court could only base its decision on the evidence heard in the state proceeding.

Issue One: Under the AEDPA rules constricting habeas proceedings, whether the Federal District Court is limited to only the record from the state post-conviction proceeding?

Held: Yes.

Reasoning: The U.S. Supreme Court, with Justice Thomas writing for the majority, held that the rules governing habeas relief limit the Federal court. The rules state the court may overturn a post-conviction finding if the lower court finding:

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or

(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

Thus, the Court held this limits the Federal court solely to the record of the state court proceeding. Interestingly, Justice Alito dissented from this portion of the Court’s holding.

Issue Two: Based upon the record in the state court, whether Mr. Pinholster received ineffective assistance of counsel?

Held: No

Reasoning: The Court simply ignored evidenced that most likely would have saved Mr. Pinholster’s life – evidence his lawyers failed to present to the jury. In doing so, the Court was able to find Mr. Pinholster’s original trial lawyers effective in their representation of him at trial.  Further, the Court found that, even assuming Mr. Pinholster’s lawyers were ineffective, the Court nevertheless held that such ineffectiveness did not prejudice Mr. Pinholster.  Put simply, the Court reweighed the same evidence presented to the jury, ignored the other evidence presented in Federal Court, and found that the jury would not have granted Mr. Pinholster mercy.  Justice Sotomayor wrote the dissent, and scathingly and convincingly argued for a new sentencing trial.

***Commentary submitted by Eric Sims Jr., Esq.***

As is clear, death penalty cases present many unique and difficult legal issues.  Death penalty cases are obviously some of the most difficult and complex cases, and they certainly require some of the most seasoned attorneys in the defense bar to represent and protect an accused person who is facing such serious consequences – it’s literally a life or death scenario.  Obviously all criminal law cases can be complex, and this is true in every states around the country (including Colorado).  Every criminal law case requires an experienced criminal defense attorney – even cases involving low-level offense such as misdemeanors or DUIs.  Regardless of the crime you’re being accused of committing, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer right away to protect you and your legal rights.

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