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Man's Death Sentence Overturned

Justices say public defenders in the murder trial did not investigate or present evidence of childhood abuse that could have swayed a jury.

June 27, 2003|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Maryland man Thursday, ruling that his right to a fair trial had been violated because his lawyers failed to investigate and present evidence that he was severely abused as a child -- evidence that might have persuaded the jury to spare his life.

The 7-2 ruling greatly increased the possibility that defendants in a number of states -- including California -- will be able to prove that their lawyers' work fell short of what the Constitution demands.

"This is a very clear statement from the Supreme Court that the right to a lawyer means more than just having a person with a bar card who is breathing," said Atlanta attorney Stephen B. Bright, who has handled death penalty appeals for more than two decades. "There are many cases, particularly in the South, that were tried just as poorly as this one."

The high court had only overturned a death penalty because of what it deemed incompetent lawyering once, in 2000, and the current justices had seemed hostile to such appeals.

But Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have spoken in recent years about the problem posed by low-quality representation in death penalty cases.

Thursday's case began with a murder in 1988 in a Baltimore suburb. The victim, Florence Lacs, 77, was found drowned in her bathtub. Kevin Wiggins, then 41, was caught using Lacs' credit cards and driving in her car with his girlfriend. There was no physical evidence tying Wiggins to the crime, but he had worked as a painter in Lacs' apartment complex the last day she was seen alive.

Wiggins, who is considered borderline mentally retarded, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. He appealed and continues to maintain his innocence.

In preparation for the appeal, Wiggins' new lawyers, led by Washington, D.C., attorney Donald B. Verrilli Jr., found what O'Connor described as "powerful" evidence that Wiggins had been badly abused as a child. The two Baltimore County public defenders who had handled the trial had failed to investigate the abuse or present the evidence to the jury, O'Connor said.

Wiggins' alcoholic mother had frequently left him and his siblings alone for days, which forced them to beg for food or even eat garbage, according to several court decisions. His mother had also placed Wiggins' hand against a hot stove burner, leading to his hospitalization.

When he was 8, Wiggins was sexually abused by his foster parents and by a Job Corps counselor, O'Connor noted.

"Given the nature and extent of the abuse, there is a reasonable probability that a competent attorney" would have presented it to a jury "and that a jury confronted with such mitigating evidence would have returned with a different sentence," she wrote. "Any reasonably competent attorney would have realized that pursuing these leads was necessary to making an informed choice among possible defenses.... "

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, issued a biting dissent calling the ruling "extraordinary." He characterized O'Connor's reasoning as ranging "from the incredible up to the feeble."

Wiggins is now entitled to a new sentencing hearing in Baltimore County.

But the broader impact of the decision, which left defense lawyers and anti-death-penalty groups across the country describing themselves as thrilled, was the suggestion that the high court will now expect judges to hold death penalty defense lawyers to a higher standard.

The case had attracted widespread attention from prosecutors and defense lawyers. The Bush administration and several state governments, including California, urged the court to uphold Wiggins' death sentence.

The decision not to do so indicates that "the court seems more willing to second-guess the failure of lawyers to investigate the life history of their clients," said UCLA law professor Stuart Banner, a former clerk to O'Connor and author of "The Death Penalty: An American History."

"There has been a lot of attention to flaws in death penalty procedures in recent years," he said. "Maybe the justices are affected by that, like anyone."

A.B. Carlton, president of the American Bar Assn., hailed the ruling, saying "today the Supreme Court confirmed that effective and competent legal assistance to those charged with the death penalty is a responsibility of utmost constitutional importance."

On the other side of the debate, Richard Wintory, vice president of the National District Attorneys Assn., said he was not certain if effects of the ruling would be "earthshaking."

But, he said, the ruling will challenge trial judges to make certain that defense lawyers conduct an investigation before the penalty phase of a capital trial.

In her opinion, O'Connor cited guidelines the American Bar Assn. adopted in 1989 calling such research an essential element of a proper defense in a death penalty case.

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