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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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This just goes to show how federal habeas and the annually revised death penalty jurisprudence operates to cheat victims. Strickland wasn't even decided when this case went to trial (I know that because conviction wasn't final, it was applicable), but was it really applicable? Would any lawyer in 1986 really be on notice that the failures here would render the penalty phase unconstitutional. What garbage. Federal habeas courts, including the Supreme Court, have shown themselves completely irresponsible when it comes to death cases. They should no longer have jurisdiction over them.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 4, 2008 8:56:53 PM

I correct myself. Strickland had been decided.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 4, 2008 9:02:24 PM

"Federal habeas courts, including the Supreme Court, have shown themselves completely irresponsible when it comes to death cases. They should no longer have jurisdiction over them."

Um, okay, yeah sure. Go back to your day job, buddy.

Posted by: John | Aug 4, 2008 10:19:31 PM

Do you really argue that federal courts have done a good job evaluating federal habeas claims in death cases?

Posted by: federalist | Aug 4, 2008 11:03:44 PM


"The victims were cheated"??? Maybe you should reflect on (or comprehend) American jurisprudence--eye for an eye ain't the law.

And, yes, a reasonable lawyer in 1986 looking at the actual facts of the case -- Vanhook confessed and the confession was not suppressed -- would have known that counsel had a duty to conduct an exhaustive mitigation investigation. Any reasonable lawyer would have understood that Vanhook's case was not a guilt/innocence case but a penalty case. A reaonable lawyer looking at the facts as known in 1986 would have realized that Vanhook' only chance lay in putting on convincing and available mitigation evidence.

There is nothing irresponsible about a court comparing what was done with what could and should have been done when assessing whether a lawyer met their obligations in our adversarial system. In Vanhook's case, the undiscovered evidence undermines one's confidence in the outcome. Strickland does not require more.

I would submit that every elected state court judge who looked at this case was more worried about re-election than they were about the federal constitutional rights of a confessed murderer. Federal courts operalize and vindicate federal constitutional rights through the Supremacy Clause. If we follow your line drawing and remove federal habeas review of death sentences aren't we turning our backs on a mechanism the founding fathers thought was necessary to maintain the appearance of legitimacy of the union.

Federalist, you should learn what most learned in law school read the note cases. The Vanhook opinion tells you to refer to other written decision to get a complete feel for the facts. Context is everything. Knee-jerk claims of irresponsibility without reference to the facts aren't persuasive.

Posted by: Guywhoreadsthenotecases | Aug 4, 2008 11:06:33 PM

Not to jump on the train here, but the Strickland standard is not whether counsel is subjectively "on notice" (or should be on notice) of something, but rather the representation " fell below an objective standard of reasonableness." Sure, this might sound like a moving target, but that is the law.

What I don't understand is why folks like Federalist (i.e. non-lawyers that like state-sponsored-killing) are not happy with these cases. They essentially say that it is legitimate for the state to kill people provided it complies with some formalities.

Posted by: S.cute.us | Aug 5, 2008 6:46:06 AM

As a federal habeas lawyer, I don't necessarily agree that "federal courts have done a good job" evaluating federal habeas claims - but that's because I believe some circuits, esp. the 5th, tend to deny meritorious claims for which they should grant relief.

I assume that not federalist's point, but his complaints are too vague for me to determine what his point actually is.

Posted by: rn | Aug 5, 2008 2:00:41 PM

rn--See, e.g., Cone, Kevin Cooper, Workman, Stevens v. Buss, Cooey, John Byrd. Need I mention more?

Posted by: federalist | Aug 5, 2008 7:23:53 PM

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