High Court Overturns Death Sentence of Man Due to Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

June 26, 2003 12:00 am

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Statement of Diann Rust-Tierney, Director, ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project


WASHINGTON-The American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project today applauds the Justices of the Supreme Court for affirming the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel that meets objective standards for competent representation.

In overturning the death sentence of Kevin Wiggins and ordering a new sentencing hearing, the Court emphasized that strategic and tactical judgments in capital cases must be based on a reasonable investigation of the facts. In this case, counsel’s failure to conduct a thorough investigation into Wiggins’ history of severe emotional, physical and sexual abuse as a young child fell well below the standard of competent legal representation. As the Court observed, Wiggins’ lawyers could not make an informed tactical decision in his case because they did not fully acquaint themselves with the facts.

Wiggins, a black man from Maryland, was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1988 murder of Florence Lacs. He was arrested because he was in possession of Lacs’ car and credit cards, but no physical evidence connected Wiggins to the murder.

Wiggins’ counsel introduced no mitigating evidence and failed to even prepare a social history into Wiggins’ past or hire an expert to do so, despite the fact that such an analysis is routine in capital cases.

Jurors did not hear that Wiggins suffered horrible abuse as a child. According to a psychiatrist’s report and reports from the Baltimore Department of Social Services, Wiggins was not regularly fed and would have to beg for food or pick it from trashcans. If Wiggins’ mother found that her children had eaten any food in the house, she would beat them with belts, straps, even furniture. On one occasion, the mother forced Wiggins’ hands against a hot stove burner to punish him. This information was only compiled after Wiggins’ conviction.

According to Wiggins’ post-conviction lawyers, Wiggins and his sisters were placed in childcare when he was six, and his foster mother’s methods of discipline included biting the children and twisting their skin. That abuse led to the children being moved again, and again they were subject to abuse. The second foster mother beat the children with straps and belts, and her husband repeatedly molested and raped Wiggins. Shortly after this sexual abuse began, Wiggins lost interest in eating and became so malnourished that he was hospitalized.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote today’s majority opinion, pointed out the failure of Wiggins’counsel. “”Despite the fact that the Public Defender’s office made funds available for the retention of a forensic social worker, counsel chose not to commission such a report,”” Justice O’Connor noted. “”Counsel’s conduct similarly fell short of the standards for capital defense work articulated by the American Bar Association (ABA), standards to which we long have referred as ‘guides to determining what is reasonable.’ The ABA Guidelines provide that investigations into mitigating evidence ‘should comprise efforts to discover all reasonably available mitigating evidence and evidence to rebut any aggravating evidence that may be introduced by the prosecutor.'””

Today’s decision highlighting the problem of ineffective assistance of counsel comes just four days before the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Furman v. Georgia. In that case, the Court found that the death penalty had been applied too often in an arbitrary, discriminatory and capricious manner. The sentences of 629 death row inmates were commuted and a temporary halt on all executions was imposed.

The ACLU will mark the 30th anniversary of that decision tomorrow with the release of a new report, The Anniversary of Furman v. Georgia; Three Decades Later: Why We Need a Temporary Halt on Executions. The report reviews state studies that highlight the harmful effects and implications of ineffective assistance of counsel and calls for a halt on executions in Maryland and other states.

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