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7th Circuit says lawyer failed mentally disabled client by not seeking unfitness finding

Posted Aug 14, 2013 1:25 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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An Illinois lawyer failed a mentally disabled teenager he was defending in a first-degree murder case by not seeking to prove that Melvin Newman was unfit for trial, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Then 16, with a first-grade reading level and what the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals describes as "a wealth of evidence" of cognitive defects, Newman was determined by prosecutors to be fit to stand trial for the 2001 slaying and his lawyer, Michael Johnson, did not seek a court determination that Newman was unfit, according to Courthouse News. He was convicted at trial and sentenced to a 47-year prison term.

State courts rejected Newman's argument, on appeal, that he had been ineffectively represented by counsel, but a federal district court judge granted a habeas petition after he exhausted his state court remedies, the 7th Circuit recounts in an Aug. 9 opinion (PDF).

The 7th Circuit affirmed the habeas grant, saying that a state court made an "unreasonable determination of the facts" in finding, despite "clear and convincing" evidence of Newman's mental disability (he functioned at around the level of a 5-year-old) that the defendant was simply an "academically challenged" slow learner.

"Johnson's failure to investigate Newman’s fitness and request a fitness hearing was constitutionally deficient," the appeals court wrote. "Had Johnson investigated and requested a fitness hearing, there is a reasonable probabilty that Newman would have been found unfit had a hearing been held. Accordingly, Newman is entitled to habeas relief."

Updated at 5:02 p.m. to change references to Newman's disability to accord to Associated Press style.

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