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August 4, 2008

Sixth Circuit Overturns Sentence of Death Due to Ineffective Counsel

In Van Hook v. Anderson, available here, the Sixth Circuit reversed a decision by the district court and granted the habeas petition of Robert Van Hook, who was sentenced to death for a 1985 murder.  The Circuit reversed the death sentence, finding ineffective assistance of counsel during the mitigation phase of Van Hook’s trial.  In holding that this ineffectiveness violated Van Hook’s Sixth Amendment rights, the court stated:

[Van Hook’s] counsel was deficient [first,] by failing to fully investigate and present as evidence all available mitigating factors; second, by failing to secure or attempt to secure an independent mental health expert to testify that the crime was the product of a mental disease; and third, by mistakenly introducing and also failing to object to proscribed evidence [a victim impact statement] that was clearly damaging to Van Hook’s case.  The combined effect of these three errors prejudiced Van Hook, rendered the mitigating hearing unreliable, and led to the imposition of the death penalty.

The court also found prejudice, noting that “[c]ounsel’s deficient performance prevented the three-judge panel from learning fully about the two statutory mitigating factors that were the strongest in his case” and “caused the three-judge panel to consider unconstitutional and damaging information while deliberating on the appropriate sentence.”  The court remanded the case to the district court with an instruction to vacate the sentence, “unless the state conducts a new penalty phase proceeding within 180 days of remand.”

As this case suggests, while in ordinary criminal cases it is notoriously difficult to meet the rigorous standards of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, courts may be more willing to find ineffectiveness at the penalty phase of a death case, where the stakes are at their highest and the effects of poor lawyering are at their gravest.

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Second Circuit Affirms Imposition of a Ten-Year Statutory Mandatory Minimum in Place at the Time of the Offense Despite Its Expiration Prior to the Sentencing Date

In United States v. Klump, available here, the Second Circuit held that the district court properly applied the ten-year statutory mandatory minimum sentence in place at the time the defendant committed the crime, despite the shorter statutory mandatory minimum in force at the time of sentencing. In February 2003, the defendant was charged with, inter alia, one count of possessing a semiautomatic assault weapon in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime. At the time of Klump’s offense and at the time he was convicted, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(B)(i) mandated a minimum sentence of ten years’ imprisonment. Fifteen months before the defendant was sentenced, however, this provision expired pursuant to a sunset provision. Klump argued that the district court should have imposed the five-year mandatory minimum in effect at the time he was sentenced. The sentencing court rejected Klump’s argument and imposed the ten-year sentence.  The Second Circuit affirmed, holding:

The older version of § 924(c)(1)(B)(i) applies to Klump even though it had expired before he was sentenced. Pursuant to 1 U.S.C. § 109, “[t]he expiration of a . . . statute shall not have the effect to release or extinguish any penalty . . . incurred under such statute, unless the . . . statute shall so expressly provide.” Section 924(c)(1)(B)(i) contains no provision expressly prohibiting its application to defendants, like Klump, who were convicted of possessing a semiautomatic assault weapon before the statute expired. Thus, the district court properly sentenced him to the ten-year mandatory minimum sentence called for by the statute.

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Medellin’s Execution Set to Move Forward

As of this posting, the execution of José Ernesto Medellin, the Mexican national on Texas death row for the rape and murder of two teenage girls in 1993, is scheduled to occur as planned on Tuesday evening. Medellin’s case, which has been covered in-depth on this blog, continues to garner both domestic and international attention. 

The World Court (formally the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands)  has recognized that under the Vienna Convention, foreign nationals have the right to consult with their respective consulates after being charged with a crime and ordered that Medellin’s conviction be reviewed and reconsidered under the treaty’s provisions.  It has been reported that Medellin never asserted any rights under the Vienna Convention during either the guilt or penalty portions of his trial, however, and raised the issue for the first time in a state trial court seeking post-conviction relief. 

Medellin’s case has a complex history.  As discussed at SCOTUSblog here, the Supreme Court decided this past spring that although the United States is bound by the Vienna Convention, Congress did not provide for its actual enforcement.  The Court further ruled that the President did not have the authority to order Texas to comply with the World Court’s decision and to grant new hearings for the foreign nationals. 

Texas has continued to resist pressure in Medellin's case from President Bush and other U.S. officials urging it to comply with the World Court’s order. As also posted by SCOTUSblog here, Texas today filed papers with the Supreme Court urging the Court to allow tomorrow’s execution to proceed.

Previous posts on Medellin’s case on this blog include:

  ·  Texas shrugs in response to World Court call for execution stays

  ·  A lengthy argument in Medellin

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Western Australia Takes Steps to End Mandatory One-Third Reductions in Criminal Sentences

In SL&P's attempt to cover the world of sentencing, we take note of an interesting story on the other side of the Pacific.  The Western Australian government has taken steps to repeal the transitional provisions of the truth in sentencing laws it passed in 2003, which required a mandatory one-third reduction, presumably to reflect better the actual time served by defendants after their sentences were handed down.  The laws came under renewed attack last month, when the WA Supreme Court ruled that they applied to all statutory offenses, even those passed after the sentencing laws were enacted, whose maximum penalties were thereby diluted.  The Attorney General, Jim McGinty, said that repealing the laws means judges will finally be able to impose the maximum sentence available for serious crimes.  An article on the topic explains that the proposal would:      

            

Repeal the Sentencing Act transitional provisions to stop judges giving compulsory one-third reductions when sentencing serious criminals. For the first time, judges will have the ability to impose maximum sentences.

Direct judges to be consistent in dishing out sentences by looking at precedents imposed for similar cases.

Give the Director of Public Prosecutions powers to apply to the court to re-sentence any offender who received a reduced sentence either initially or on appeal from August 1, 2008 up until the laws come into force later this year.

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August 4, 2008 in Guest blogging by Proskauer Rose | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Guest Blogging

Dear Readers:

Proskauer Rose is guest blogging while Doug is on vacation. Posts by individual authors are signed by each author. Posts that result from a collaborative effort are signed by "Guest bloggers." We may be contacted at this address until Doug returns.

August 4, 2008 in Guest blogging by Proskauer Rose | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack