WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court (search) is considering whether a lawyer was wrong to concede a death row inmate's guilt without his consent, a case that gives justices another opportunity to consider standards for attorney conduct in death penalty (search) cases.
On Election Day, justices were hearing arguments in a case challenging a Florida Supreme Court decision to grant a new trial for Joe Elton Nixon (search). He was convicted in the 1984 murder of a woman he met at a Tallahassee mall.
At issue is the court-appointed attorney's decision to admit at trial that Nixon was responsible for the "horrible, horrible death" in hopes that his candor would persuade the jury to spare the man's life.
Florida prosecutors said Nixon tied Jeanne Bickner, a 38-year-old state worker, to trees with jumper cables and set her on fire. Facing substantial evidence against him, Nixon's lawyer offered unsuccessfully to plea-bargain for life imprisonment before deciding to concede the man's guilt.
After he was sentenced to death, Nixon charged he was denied a Sixth Amendment right to counsel because his attorney had not vigorously argued his defense. Prosecutors countered that Nixon did not object when his attorney told him of the trial strategy to build jury sympathy.
The case hinges on a pair of Supreme Court decisions handed down in 1984 amid misgivings among some justices that punishments were sometimes imposed arbitrarily due to poor attorney representation.
Thirty-seven states currently allow the death penalty, and about 3,500 convicted murderers are on death row.
The 1984 rulings limit inmates' ability to claim a Sixth Amendment violation if their attorneys made the strategic choice not to pursue certain defenses at trial. The rulings also provide exceptions when counsel utterly fails to challenge the prosecution with "meaningful adversarial testing."
In a 5-2 decision last year, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new trial after finding the lawyer did not effectively represent Nixon nor did the defendant agree to the lawyer's strategy.
"Counsel's duty is to hold the state to its burden of proof by clearly articulating to the jury or fact-finder that the state must establish each element of the crime charged," the Florida court said.
Nixon did not attend his trial; instead, he stripped off his clothes and refused to enter the courtroom. The judge held a hearing in Nixon's cell to make sure the defendant waived his right to attend the trial. Wearing only underwear, Nixon told the judge he wanted another attorney, and he would disrupt the trial if forced to attend.
Under conservative Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the Supreme Court generally has preserved capital punishment while seeking to fine-tune its constitutional limits. Since 1986, the court has issued fewer stays of execution but put a stop to the killing of convicts who are insane or mentally retarded.
This term, the court also will rule on the appropriateness of execution for juvenile crime, the racial composition of juries and potential bias when convicts appear shackled before the juries that sentence them — although the justices face the prospect of doing so without Rehnquist.
The chief justice revealed Monday that he is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for thyroid cancer, which was taken as an indication he has a grave form of the disease. He said, however, he plans to work from home and did not suggest he might leave the court.
The case is Florida v. Nixon, 03-931.
Also Tuesday, the court was considering whether state prisons may separate new inmates by race as a safety measure.
California routinely segregates all new prisoners by race for 60 days and whenever they are transferred to new facilities. The Supreme Court has ruled that racially segregated prisons are unconstitutional. California officials insist the practice is necessary to reduce prison violence, and segregation is only temporary.
The case is Johnson v. California, 03-636.