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More coverage of Rompilla decision

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

  • Organization: USA Today

High court takes aim at poor defense

By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - A divided Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Pennsylvania man Monday, saying his trial lawyers did not seek out evidence that he was abused as a child and suffered from mental illness. The 5-4 ruling suggested that defense lawyers will have to be more vigilant in checking for mitigating evidence that might warrant a life sentence rather than the death penalty.

The decision was a rare move by a court that has been loath to second-guess defense lawyers in death penalty cases. The decision to toss out convicted killer Ronald Rompilla's sentence was only the third time the justices have reversed a death sentence because of inadequate lawyers since 1984, when the court set a test for defendants to prove that lawyers' incompetence affected their cases.

It was also the fifth time this term that the justices voided a death sentence. In one of the cases, the court said it is unconstitutional to execute killers who were juveniles at the time of their crimes.

The court's ruling Monday came after some justices and legal groups cited problems with defense lawyers in death penalty cases. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a speech in 2001 that she had never seen a capital defendant seeking a stay of execution who had been represented properly. In 2003, the American Bar Association approved new guidelines for lawyers in state capital cases.

Rompilla was convicted of the murder in 1988 of James Scanlon, who ran a bar in Allentown, Pa. Appealing his sentence, Rompilla said his public defenders should have offered evidence about his past. An appeals court rejected the claim; it said his lawyers tried to get such evidence from his family.

Reversing, Supreme Court Justice David Souter said defense lawyers must make reasonable efforts to review material prosecutors are likely to use. He said Rompilla's lawyers did not check his file from a prior conviction that prosecutors cited and that had details about his past. Joining Souter were John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Ginsburg and Steven Breyer.

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