WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court left a death sentence in place Tuesday for a Tennessee killer whose new lawyers hoped he would be a test case for an examination of the quality of legal help given to people facing the death penalty.
The court turned down an appeal from Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman, convicted of killing a drug dealer and leaving a butcher knife in the back of another victim. His lawyers had asked the court to consider whether better legal help could have persuaded a jury to sentence Abdur'Rahman to life in prison in 1987.
The case was seen as a possible test of the premise, widespread among death penalty opponents, that death penalty defendants often get bad legal help, and that many of them could avoid a death sentence if their lawyers worked harder, or had more resources.
The quality of leagl help for people facing trial for a crime that could carry the death penalty is a question that apparently concerns at least two Supreme Court justices.
"I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution (reprieve) applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a speech in April.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor suggested in July that the country may need minimum standards for lawyers who represent people facing the death penalty.
"After 20 years on (the) high court, I have to acknowledge that serious questions are being raised about whether the death penalty is being fairly administered in this country," O'Connor said.
Most death penalty defendants are poor, or minorities, or both. Many have prior convictions. Very few can afford to hire lawyers of their own choosing, and the lawyers who take death cases are a motley lot.
Some lawyers have a large amount of experience with death cases, and may be seasoned death penalty opponents with considerable access to research and investigation. Others have no experience at all with the death penalty, and may be juggling dozens of other court-appointed cases at the same time.
The Supreme Court has already agreed to consider two other death row issues in the current term, which ends in June.
Abdur'Rahman's new lawyers claim there was ample evidence of horrific abuse in his childhood, recurrent mental problems, a family history of mental illness, and other factors that the jury could have weighed against the severity of the crime.
Abdur'Rahman's trial lawyers ignored or overlooked that potentially mitigating evidence, his Supreme Court appeal said.
"The failure of (Abdur'Rahman's) counsel to introduce the voluminous, compelling mitigating evidence available in this case, (left) the jurors with no reason to believe (his) life was worth saving," Abdur'Rahman's lawyers wrote.
Instead, jurors heard a great deal about the bloody murder of Patrick Daniels in 1986, and the repeated stabbing of Daniels' girlfriend, Norma Norman. Norman survived, and identified Abdur'Rahman, then known as James Lee Jones, and another man as her attackers.
Abdur'Rahman lost his appeals in state court, but a federal judge later struck down his death sentence on grounds that the trial lawyers did an inadequate job. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the death sentence last year.
Abdur'Rahman claimed the appeals court was out of bounds, and asked the Supreme Court to step in.
The case is Abdur'Rahman v. Bell, 00-1742.