May 24, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Jefferson v. Upton

On May 24, the Supreme Court decided Jefferson v. Upton, No. 09-8852, holding that the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit failed to consider all relevant factors in deciding whether a defendant was entitled to habeas corpus relief from his conviction for murder and resulting death sentence based on his claim that his trial lawyer's failure to investigate and present evidence about a traumatic head injury that he had suffered as a child deprived him of the effective assistance of counsel, in violation of the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution.

Before Lawrence Jefferson's state-court trial for murder, he was examined by a psychologist who concluded that Jefferson's mental deficiencies did not impair his judgment or decision-making capacity. The psychologist also recommended, however, that tests should be done to determine whether injuries that Jefferson suffered as a child when his head was run over by a car had caused brain damage. Jefferson's trial lawyers did not have him tested, and he was convicted and sentenced to death. He then sought habeas corpus relief in state court, where relief was denied, and then in federal court. At the proceeding in federal district court, the uncontested evidence established that, as a result of his injury, Jefferson had "permanent brain damage" that "causes abnormal behavior" over which he had "no or substantially limited control." The district court granted relief, but the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, deferring to the state habeas court's factual finding (which had been prepared ex parte by the prosecutors and adopted by the court verbatim) that the failure of Jefferson's trial lawyers to investigate his possible brain injuries had been based on oral advice by the examining psychologist that an examination would be a "waste of time"—supposed advice that the psychologist denied having given.

The Supreme Court granted Jefferson's petition for a writ of certiorari and, without setting the case for argument, reversed the Eleventh Circuit's decision in a per curiam opinion. Because the habeas petition was filed before the enactment of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, it was governed by prior federal habeas law, which required a federal court to presume the correctness of state court findings unless one of eight statutory criteria were proved—including that the fact-finding procedure in state court was inadequate to afford a full and fair hearing, that the applicant was otherwise denied due process in the state-court proceeding, or that the findings are not fairly supported by the record. The Eleventh Circuit erred in considering itself to be "duty-bound" to accept the state court's findings because they had adequate evidentiary support, while ignoring Jefferson's assertions that the proceedings were fundamentally unfair.

Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Thomas joined.

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