The Supreme Court (search) sided with a convicted killer in an important test of legal standards for death penalty cases, ruling Thursday that inexperienced lawyers failed their client at trial.
The court, by a 7-2 vote, threw out the death sentence of Kevin Wiggins (search), a borderline retarded man convicted of drowning an elderly Maryland woman who employed him as a handyman. The jury that sent Wiggins to death row never heard that he was repeatedly raped, beaten and denied food as a child, or that his mother burned his hands on the stove as punishment.
If jurors knew the ghastly details, they might well have chosen a life sentence for Wiggins, the high court majority said. Wiggins' conviction stands, but the court ordered a new sentencing hearing.
The Supreme Court has said the Constitution guarantees the right to an effective lawyer. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search), writing for the court, said the jury in Wiggins' case might have decided differently had it been given more information.
At issue was defense lawyers' constitutional duty to look into a client's past in hope of turning up something that could sway jurors against imposing a death sentence.
Such potentially mitigating evidence usually comes into play after conviction, during the separate sentencing phase of a capital trial. The sentencing phase often operates like a trial itself, with witnesses for the prosecution and the defense. Prosecutors sometimes present wrenching testimony from surviving relatives of the victim. Defense lawyers can counter with evidence about a defendant's past, and testimony from the convicted killer.
Since guilt is already established, a defense lawyer's only goal in the sentencing phase is to save a client's life.
Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the court's reasoning in the ruling ranged "from the incredible up to the feeble" in giving Wiggins a second chance.
Wiggins' two original lawyers had almost no experience defending a capital case. They concentrated on trying to raise doubts about their client's guilt. Although the public defenders had some information about Wiggins' early life, they did not order the usual detailed background investigation that could be used to win sympathy from a jury.
A federal appeals court had ruled that the lawyers' performance was not unconstitutionally poor. They had some minimal information about their client's background and made an understandable choice to focus their efforts elsewhere, the appeals judges said.
O'Connor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have publicly expressed qualms about the quality of legal help available to many people accused of murder, but the court has sided with prosecutors in its two most recent cases dealing with the subject.
In this case they reversed the appeals court.
Opponents of the death penalty frequently lament the uneven performances of overworked or inexperienced lawyers appointed to represent poor people facing a possible death sentence. In Wiggins' case, even some death penalty supporters agreed.
A group of current and former prosecutors, including former Attorney General Janet Reno, sided with Wiggins in a friend-of-the-court filing.
In the opinion, O'Connor said the evidence of Wiggins' background that "counsel failed to discover and present in this case is powerful." She mentioned his abuse and rape as a child, and mental illness.
"We find there to be a reasonable probability that a competent attorney, aware of this history, would have introduced it at sentencing," she wrote.
Wiggins has always maintained he is innocent. He was caught driving the victim's car a few days after the killing, and had some of the victim's credit cards. No physical evidence tied him to the crime.
The case is Wiggins v. Smith, 02-311.