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HIGH COURT'S TERM ENDS | EXCERPTS

Wiggins vs. Smith

June 27, 2003

The court overturned a Maryland man's death sentence because his public defenders did not gather evidence about the abuses he suffered growing up.

majority opinion:

*--* By Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Joined by Justices John Paul Stevens David H. Souter Ruth Bader Ginsburg Stephen G. Breyer Anthony M. Kennedy William H. Rehnquist

*--*

The records [available to his public defenders] revealed several facts: Petitioner's mother was a chronic alcoholic; Wiggins was shuttled from foster home to foster home and displayed some emotional difficulties while there; he had frequent, lengthy absences from school; and, on at least one occasion, his mother left him and his siblings alone for days without food....

Any reasonably competent attorney would have realized that pursuing these leads was necessary to making an informed choice among possible defenses, particularly given the apparent absence of any aggravating factors in petitioner's background.

The mitigating evidence counsel failed to discover and present in this case is powerful. As [a social worker] reported [to an appeals court] based on his conversations with Wiggins and members of his family, Wiggins experienced severe privation and abuse in the first six years of his life while in the custody of his alcoholic, absentee mother. He suffered physical torment, sexual molestation and repeated rape during his subsequent years in foster care.

Wiggins' sentencing jury heard only one significant mitigating factor -- that Wiggins had no prior convictions. Had the jury been able to place petitioner's excruciating life history on the mitigating side of the scale, there is a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have struck a different balance.

Dissenting opinion:

*--* By Justice Antonin Scalia

Joined by Justice Clarence Thomas

*--*

Wiggins' accounts of his background, as reported by [the social worker], are the hearsay statements of a convicted murderer and, as the trial testimony in this case demonstrates, a serial liar. Knowing that the information he provided to [the social worker] would be used to attack his death sentence, Wiggins had every incentive to lie again about the supposed abuse he suffered.

I doubt very much that Wiggins' jury would have shared the court's uncritical and wholesale acceptance of these hearsay claims.

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