SCOTUS Grants Review in Stirling v. Stokes: What you should know

The nine justices of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo in 2021

Seated from left: Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, standing from left: Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday granted certiorari in just one case: Stirling versus Stokesthe case of a South Carolina death row inmate whose attorney failed to present evidence that could have prevented the death penalty.

The court’s order does not bode well for the convicted capital murderer Sammie Louis Stokeswhich the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of in 2021. Now, in light of SCOTUS’ recent ruling, which dissenting judges called “perverted”. Sonja Sotomayorthe Supreme Court will have an opportunity to consider another death row inmate’s claim that his attorney failed him.

Sammie Louis Stokes, then 18, was serving a prison sentence in 1998 for assaulting his wife. At the time, Stokes was cellmate Roy Zahn. Toothe’s mother, Pattie Syphrettelived with Toothe’s children and her mother, Connie Snipes. In an attempt to gain custody of her grandchildren, Syphrette hired Stokes to kill Snipes for a fee of $2,000.

Stokes was released from prison just a few months later. He and a friend captured, raped, and fatally shot Snipes. Stokes was arrested and wrote a detailed confession in county jail. After a 4-day trial, a jury found Stokes guilty.

Since Stokes confessed to the murder, reducing the death penalty was the focus of his case. Stokes and his sister lived a childhood marred by physical and sexual abuse, profound neglect, and repeated trauma. Not only was Stokes orphaned as a child, but he saw both parents die before his eyes.

During his trial, experts were willing to testify that Stoke’s emotional regulation and social adjustment were impaired by the trauma he experienced as a child. His attorney prepared some personal evidence but withheld it at the last minute. Instead, the attorney presented a single witness at the sentencing hearing: a retired prison guard who was unprepared and counterproductive. The jury returned a death sentence without hearing a word of defense about Stokes as a person. In a post-conviction proceeding, a new attorney found more information about Stokes’ traumatic upbringing, but failed to pursue a mitigation-based claim for ineffective counsel’s assistance.

In the penalty phase of the trial, a lawyer planned to present evidence that Stokes’ medical condition (Stokes is HIV positive) made life imprisonment inappropriate for him. His attorney also hired a neurologist who would testify to evidence of brain damage from AIDS and a forensic psychiatrist who testified that Stokes was likely to die immediately of AIDS in prison. Shortly before the sentencing, however, Stokes refused to allow his lawyer to mention his HIV status under any circumstances.

Stokes’ attorney also planned to present evidence about Stokes’ psychological profile and years of abuse. However, the attorney made a last-minute decision not to provide personal evidence about his client at the sentencing hearing.

In fact, the only witness Stokes’ attorney presented at the sentencing hearing was a retired jailer who was offered as an adaptability expert. James Aiken Never met or interviewed Stokes, but testified that Stokes “does not exhibit predatory behavior” and that Stokes also does not display an “unusual” risk of injury in prison. The jury sentenced Stokes to death.

Stokes appealed, based on ineffective assistance from trial counsel, citing his counsel’s failure to investigate or provide mitigating evidence. The district court found that Stokes’ attorney had done enough to stand up to the legal challenge.

The Fourth Circle, however, disagreed. The court reversed in a 2-1 ruling, noting that “although they investigated ‘to a certain extent,’ their investigations were still inadequate because they ignored the valuable leads they had uncovered.”

Chief District Judge Roger Gregory (a break officer from bill clinton who was later reappointed by George W Bush) decided that the attorney was aware of Stokes’ psychological, educational and family history, and that background information would have prompted any objectively reasonable attorney to investigate further. Gregory pointed out that the kind of evidence readily available regarding Stokes’ story is precisely the kind of evidence regularly used to mitigate convictions.

The chief judge wrote:

But because the trial attorneys had no experience or formal training in harm reduction, conducted a cursory investigation, and failed to consult experts, they underestimated the value of their evidence. There is much more to Stokes’ life story than just a ‘difficult upbringing’ and ‘fights to come’; The evidence shows a deep and chronic trauma that was as extreme as a child can experience. Such evidence is prototypical for a personal mitigation narrative.

Gregory further argued that Stokes’ attorney’s apology for not presenting evidence — that a black jury in 1990s South Carolina was not open to a personal mitigation narrative — was objectively unreasonable. The Fourth Circuit remanded the case to the district court with instructions that the district court should enter the detention order unless the state of South Carolina grants Stokes a new hearing of the verdict within a reasonable time.

The district judge agreed with Gregory’s opinion Pamela Harrisa Barack Obama Representative. The only dissenter was a district judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum, Jr.a donald trump Representative.

Quattlebaum wrote in his dissent that he agreed that “the purpose of mitigating evidence is not to excuse behavior but to help place the moral judgment of the behavior in a context more favorable to the accused”. However, he explained that lawyers need to make quick decisions “in the fast-paced and intense context of a trial.” Quattlebaum noted that the idea that black jurors could not accept Stokes’ personal history as a mitigating factor “seems far from unreasonable,” concluding that “this is exactly the kind of strategic judgment we’re looking for.” have to leave”.

The judgment of the Supreme Court in Shinn v. Ramirez– presented less than a week before the certiorari in the Stokes Case – clarified where Conservative judges view habeas corpus petitions as a general matter. justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the federal use of habeas corpus to overturn a state conviction “constitutes a profound violation of the powerful and legitimate interest in punishing the guilty, an interest shared by the state and crime victims alike.”

in the Shinn, the judges dismissed invalid counsel actions brought by two death row inmates who argued their attorneys withheld evidence vital to their post-conviction claims. Stokes’ case is different in that his allegation is based on evidence that may have been introduced in the penalty phase of his original trial. Procedurally, the cases differ slightly. However, the underlying interest in assessing a lawyer’s performance in trials for those sentenced to death is remarkably similar.

Should SCOTUS finally overturn the Fourth Federal Court ruling, it would mean that death row inmates’ ability to make claims that could halt their executions would be further curtailed.

[image via Erin Schaff/Pool/AFP via Getty Images]

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James Brien

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