Friday, March 27, 2015

Medina v. Chappell, Nos. 09-99015, 09-99016 (Wardlaw with Thomas and Berzon) (Note: the Arizona FPD filed an amicus brief in this case) ---
In two consolidated appeals, the Ninth Circuit affirmed death sentences imposed on a California state prisoner. One of the appeals applied pre-AEDPA law; the other applied AEDPA's limitation on relief. The court also held that there was no error in failing to stay the proceedings in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Ryan v. Gonzales, 133 S. Ct. 696 (2013).

The primary issue in both cases was ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing, for failing to present a host of mitigating evidence. That mitigating evidence, uncovered for the first time in federal habeas proceedings, was legion -- he was physically abused by his teachers at a Catholic school and by his parents. He suffered trauma during childbirth, head injuries at the age of 5 or 6, and was allowed to assemble model airplanes as a child in a manner that exposed him to toxic fumes. As a teenager, he was stuck by a car while riding his bicycle; his parents noted that he became more violent after that accident. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia on 11 separate occaisons during previons stints in prison in California and Arizona. These diagnoses were the culmination of a history of mental illness that began around the onset of puberty; as an adult, he experienced paranoid delusions. Four other members of his extended family may also have suffered from schizophrenia.

In the pre-AEDPA case, the court held that counsel's performance at sentencing was not deficient. Counsel's investigator interviewed family members and briefed counsel on the interviews, none of which divulged possible sources of the mitigating evidence that was later uncovered by federal habeas counsel. Because the investigation that trial counsel conducted revealed a childhood that was "relatively unremarkable," there was no deficient performance. Despite counsel's apparently good efforts, there simply were no "tantalizing indications" that counseled in favor of further investigation. Nor was the mitigating evidence "overwhelming," so as to give rise to Strickland prejudice for failing to present it, especially in light of the "litany of aggravating factors" that were presented at the penalty phase. And even though Gonzales gave the district court the discretion to stay the proceedings while the petitioner was incompetent to proceed, because his claims were record-based.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the case that is governed by AEDPA fared no better. No holding of the Supreme Court required trial counsel to affirmatively provide certain evidence to an expert witness, so there was no relief available for an ineffective-assistance claim based on that omission. And because his pre-AEDPA mitigation ineffective-assistance claim failed under de novo review, a parallel claim governed by AEDPA also failed.

The decision is here:


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