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Supreme Court Makes Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Ruling: Thornell v. Jones

The Supreme Court Held that the 9th Circuit Did Not Follow the Law in Finding Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Jones is Charged of Several Murders, Convicted and Sentenced to Death

Jones committed three murders in relation to a theft of guns. One of the victims was a small child. Jones was charged with two counts of premeditated first degree murder and one count of attempted premeditated first-degree murder in the state of Arizona. The jury found him guilty on all three charges.

In Arizona the law states that the court is required to impose a sentence of death if it found one or more statutorily enumerated “aggravating circumstances” and “no mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to call for leniency.”

The court found three aggravating circumstances, including multiple homicides, the motication of pecuniary gain and the heinous nature of the murders.  The court also find that a small child was murdered, another aggravating circumstance. The court also heard mitigating evidence including that Jones was abused as a child, began using drugs at age 13, received “brain trauma at ages 9 and 18, and had received ‘psychiatric treatments’ as a child.  The defense also submitted a report from a court-appointed forensic psychiatrist who was later described by counsel as essentially ‘part of the defense team.’ “  From that the Arizona Trial court determined that there were four mitigating circumstances:

(1) Jones suffered from long-term substance abuse; (2) that problem may be caused by genetic factors and head trauma; (3) he was under the influence of alcohol and drugs at the time of the murders; and (4) he was abused as a child.

The court concluded that the circumstances were not sufficiently substantial to outweigh the aggravating circumstances and sentenced Jones to death. Jones sought post-conviction review in the state court on the ground that hos counsel because “his attorney should have retained an independent neuropsychologist, rather than relying on Dr. Potts. The state court denied this claim because it ‘remember[ed]’ that Dr. Potts ‘was a very good expert’ at trial and ‘was defense oriented.’”

Jones filed a 2254 motion in federal court. “The District Court held an evidentiary hearing but ultimately concluded that Jones could not show prejudice because the additional information he presented ‘barely . . . alter[ed] the sentencing profile presented to the sentencing judge.’”  The 9th circuit granted relief twice and also held that it was permissible to hear new evidence at the federal 2254 evidentiary hearing and concluded that there was a “’reasonable probability’ that “’ones would not have received a death sentence’ if that evidence had been presented at sentencing…The panel’s lengthy opinion made no mention of the aggravating factors, and it did not consider the State’s rebuttal evidence.”

The court indicated that the issue was ineffective assistance of counsel.

Supreme Court:  The 9th Circuit Did not Follow the Law

“When an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim is based on counsel’s performance at the sentencing phase of a capital case, a defendant is prejudiced only if “there is a reasonable probability that, absent [counsel’s] errors, the sentencer . . . would have concluded that the balance of aggravating and mitigating circumstances did not warrant death.”

Writing for the court, Justice Alito indicated that the court “failed adequately to take into account the weighty aggravating circumstances in this case.”  While the court did mention them, Justice Alito indicated that they failed to give them the weight that they would need by an Arizona state court.

The Supreme Court also indicated that “The Ninth Circuit applied a strange Circuit rule that prohibits a court in a Strickland case from assessing the relative strength of expert witness testimony.”  The court stated that this was an unsound rule and that determining whether an expert’s testimony would have made a difference includes an evaluation of the strength of the report or testimony.

Third, the Supreme Court rejected Jones’ argument “that a habeas petitioner is entitled to relief whenever he or she ‘presents substantial evidence of the kind that a reasonable sentencer might deem relevant to the defendant’s moral culpability.’”

The court also indicated on the prejudice prong, the information that Jones brought in the federal evidentiary hearing was not new and what was new would not carry weight in the Arizona courts.  On the other hand, the aggravating factors were extremely weighty. The court stated as a result that there was no reasonable probability that the evidence would have altered the outcome at sentencing.

As a result of all this the Supreme Court Reversed the Judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case back. 22–982

If anything here applies to you, contact us today.

At The Law Office of Jeremy Gordon, we fight aggressively for our clients. We are experienced, and know what it takes to present a successful defense in a federal criminal case. For prompt, courteous and skilled representation as your federal criminal defense attorney, contact us today to schedule a free phone consultation.
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