Supreme Court Agrees to Consider New Angle in Death Row Cases

The Supreme Court broadened its review of the death penalty Monday, agreeing to consider when death row inmates with bad lawyers deserve a second chance.

Justices will review the case of a man who claims he was unfairly sentenced after being convicted of drowning an elderly woman in her bathtub. The court could use the case of Maryland death row inmate Kevin Wiggins to clarify the threshold for ineffective counsel claims in capital cases.

The subject of bad lawyering has bothered some court members in recent years, and two justices publicly criticized the quality of death penalty lawyers.

As the court reviews the case, Maryland leaders have been reconsidering the death penalty. In this case, and others on that state's death row, the victim was white and the convicted killer was black.

Maryland's governor suspended executions in that state earlier this year while a study is done on whether capital punishment is used in a racially discriminatory way. Nine of the 13 men on Maryland's death row when the moratorium began were black. The governor-elect is expected to resume executions.

Wiggins' appeal becomes the fifth death penalty case that the Supreme Court will review this term. The other four involve mechanics of imposing capital punishment.

The Wiggins case also involves a technical issue — what standard should be used in evaluating ineffective counsel claims.

Wiggins had never been convicted of a crime before, but jurors who considered his sentence may have been confused, his new lawyers said. Public defenders also did not tell the jury that Wiggins, who is mentally retarded, was beaten and raped as a child after being put in foster care when his abusive and alcoholic mother abandoned him.

His new attorneys said there was an inadequate check into his background. They also questioned whether there was enough evidence for a judge to find him guilty in the first place.

A federal judge threw out the conviction and death sentence, but an appeals court reinstated them.

The chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, J. Harvie Wilkinson III, said he had doubts about Wiggins' guilt, but that Maryland's governor should decide whether to commute the sentence.

"My own view is that (Wiggins) very probably committed the heinous offense for which he stands convicted," Wilkinson wrote. "But I cannot say with certainty that he did so."

Florence Lacs, 77, was drowned in the tub in her Baltimore County apartment. There was no evidence linking Wiggins to the crime, but he was found driving her car after using her credit card to buy his girlfriend jewelry.

Wiggins worked as a painter in the victim's building and was seen talking to her the day police believe she was murdered. He was 27 at the time.

His new attorney, Donald B. Verrilli Jr., said the appeals court failed to recognize what the Supreme Court and other courts have said is fundamental: lawyers must investigate their clients' pasts and other potential mitigating evidence that could help their case.

Defendants in capital cases often cannot afford to hire their own lawyers, so lawyers are appointed for them by the state. Verrilli said the lawyers assigned to Wiggins were inexperienced and overworked.

Maryland lawyer Gary E. Bair said lower courts did not use the wrong standard in reviewing Wiggins' case.

The case is Wiggins v. Corcoran, 02-311.