U.S. Supreme Court

9th Circuit wrongly overturned death sentence, Supreme Court rules in summary decision

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday summarily reversed a federal appeals court decision on behalf of a death-row inmate who claimed that his trial lawyer was ineffective.

In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court vacated a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco in the case of George Kayer, who was convicted of murdering and robbing a friend on a gambling trip. The 9th Circuit had overturned Kayer’s death sentence.

The per curiam Supreme Court opinion said the 9th Circuit had not followed the federal law restricting the power of federal courts to review state court convictions. The law is the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented but did not write an opinion.

Kayer had borrowed money from the victim and killed him after losing it while gambling.

Kayer had refused to cooperate with a mitigation specialist to evaluate mitigating factors for sentencing, and he rejected a continuance to give the specialist more time to evaluate the case. A judge sentenced Kayer to death after finding that aggravating factors outweighed the single mitigating factor demonstrated by Kayer—his importance in his son’s life.

Kayer claimed in a petition for post-conviction relief that his lawyers should have investigated mitigating circumstances at the outset of criminal proceedings. Kayer cited evidence that he was addicted to alcohol and gambling, he had a heart attack about six weeks before the murder, he had mental illness, and family members had similar addictions and illnesses that affected his childhood.

The 9th Circuit agreed with Kayer that his lawyers should have pursued mitigation evidence more quickly.

The Supreme Court vacated the 9th Circuit decision, saying the appeals court resolved the case “in a manner fundamentally inconsistent with AEDPA.”

In habeas cases claiming ineffective assistance of counsel, the inmate must show that a claim decided on the merits in a state court proceeding was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, the high court said.

“Under AEDPA, state courts play the leading role in assessing challenges to state sentences based on federal law,” the Supreme Court said. “A state court heard Kayer’s evidence and concluded that he failed to show prejudice.”

The 9th Circuit “exceeded its authority in rejecting that determination,” the high court added.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

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