SUICIDE BY COURT. Schriro V. Landrigan. Opinion By Justice Clarence Thomas

May 23, 2007 by
Filed under: Uncategorized 

Schriro V. Landrigan, U.S. Supreme Court, May 14, 2007. Justice Thomas delivered the Opinion of the Court Joined by Roberts C.J., Scalia, Kennedy and Alito JJ. Stevens, J., Filed a dissent in which Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., Joined.


Jeffrey Landrigan was convicted of felony-murder in an Arizona state court. At the penalty phase of his trial he refused to allow his counsel to present mitigating circumstances in the form of testimony by his birth mother and his ex-wife. Further his counsel failed to have psychological testing done for the penalty phase of the trial. Landrigan was belligerent when asked by the court if he wished to have mitigating circumstances brought to its attention in the form of testimony by his birth mother and his ex-wife

He told the Judge, “Not as far as I am concerned.” He further blocked his counsel’s proffer of evidence that his birth mother had used drugs and alcohol when she was pregnant with him and that he had held a legitimate job.

He told the judge, “I think you want to give me the death penalty. Just bring it right on. I am ready for it.”

The trial judge found two statutory aggravating circumstances: first that Landrigan murdered in the expectation of pecuniary gain (nothing was taken from the apartment where the murder took place however it was inferred since Landrigan searched the apartment he was looking for something to steal. Thus the felony murder rule was invoked), further that Landrigan had committed two violent crimes previously. In addition the judge found two mitigating factors, that Landrgan’s family loved him and the absence of premeditation. Then the judge invoked the death penalty.

On appeal the Arizona Supreme Court upheld Landrigan’s sentence and conviction unanimously. An Arizona post conviction hearing by the same trial judge five years later determined that Landrgan could not demonstrate that he had been prejudiced by any error his counsel may have made.

In an habeas corpus petition the Federal District Court found that Landrigan was not prejudiced by any error his counsel may have made and that because he could not make even colorable allegations of ineffectiveness of counsel the District Court denied him a factual hearing on that issue.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, en banc, reversed saying that trial counsel did little to prepare for the sentencing aspect of the case, that there was a wealth of mitigating circumstances and that Landrigan’s last minute decision not to let his birth mother and ex-wife testify did not excuse his counsel failure to conduct an adequate investigation prior to sentencing.

The Fact That Landrigan Had Organic Brain Damage Was Not known At The Time Of Sentenceing

Justice Thomas does not mention in his opinion that Landrigan’s psychologist failed to conduct adequate tests that would have indicated that Landrigan had organic brain damage at the time of his crimes and sentencing and that this was mitigating evidence unknown to the court. Indeed Justice Thomas fails to point out that no psychiatric testimony was presented in his behalf at his sentencing hearing at all. These facts were brought out by Justice Stevens in his dissent.

The dissent does note that Landrigan was seen by a psychologist in preparation for sentencing but no neuro-psychological testing was completed. Perhaps Landrigan didn’t cooperate, but the psychologist was not called to say this and if he didn’t cooperate his conduct could have been analyzed as irrational, not normal or the product of brain damage caused by his birth mother’s drinking and drug use during pregnancy. Later after sentencing he did undergo neuro-psychological testing and this revealed organic brain damage.

Thus Landrigan was mentally impaired at the time of his trial and sentencing and his counsel failed to have the customary psychological tests to determine his mental abilities at the time of his sentencing. This was one of the significant reasons why the Ninth Circuit granted Landrigan a factual hearing on whether he received adequate representation at his trial.

Justice Thomas omits this crucial fact in his opinion and denies Landrigan a factual hearing on the issue of effectiveness of counsel and lets the death sentence stand.

Justice Stevens based his dissent in great part on this fact and the fact that not even Landrigan knew of his brain impairment at the time he made his last minute waiver of mitigating evidence. According to Justice Stevens, Justice Thomas’ opinion was based on his parsimonious appraisal of a capital defendants constitutional right to have the sentencing decision reflect all meaningful consideration of all relevant mitigating evidence.

Justice Thomas allowed Landrigan, a brain impaired defendant, to commit suicide by court.

One has to ask why Justice Thomas and those that were in the majority ignored that there was evidence unknown to the sentencing court that could have been produced by diligent counsel that Landrigan was brain impaired at the time of all his crimes and also at the time of his alleged waiver in court.

It seems that justice demands that he be allowed a factual hearing in the district court as to the issue of whether he was denied competent counsel and entitled to a new sentencing hearing. Did the majority put policy considerations before factual realities? Justice Thomas mentions that this case raises no constitutional issues but he does point out that The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) does not change the District Court’s discretion to grant a habeas corpus evidentiary hearing. However it did limit that discretion to state court decisions that were contrary or involved an unreasonable application of established Federal law. He also points out that the Federal District Courts don’t have the time to hear factual habeas corpus hearings. Justice Stevens points out that even before the AEDPA District Courts held evidentiary hearings in only 1.17% of habeas corpus petitions. So court work load and congestion was not a viable reason to deny Landrigan a hearing.

Landrigan Is On Death Row Because His Constitutional Rights Were Not Protected By The Majority.

Justice Stevens points out a constitutional right to have effective counsel present all meaningful mitigatating evidence at sentencing has been denied here.

Justice Thomas has denied Landrigan a fundamental constitutional right to effective counsel for the purpose of expediting the imposition of the death penalty a policy decision made long ago when Rehnquist was Chief Justice. However before one follows a policy it should be supported by the facts in the case at hand.



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