U.S. Supreme Court

Defense lawyer who didn’t probe death-row client's bad childhood was deficient, SCOTUS says

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A defense lawyer who failed to investigate his capital client’s tumultuous childhood provided ineffective assistance of counsel, the U.S. Supreme Court held Monday.

The Supreme Court ruled in a per curiam opinion on behalf of death-row inmate Terence Andrus, who was sentenced to death for an attempted carjacking in 2008 in which he killed the car owner and a bystander. He was under the influence of PCP-laced marijuana at the time.

A Texas trial court had recommended that Andrus be granted habeas relief and a new sentencing hearing because of the deficient performance of Andrus’ lawyer. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed, finding that Andrus had failed to prove ineffective assistance.

The Supreme Court granted cert, vacated the appellate judgment and said the defense lawyer was ineffective. The Supreme Court remanded the case for a determination of whether the deficient performance was prejudicial. Three justices dissented.

Andrus’ habeas lawyers presented evidence of “a childhood marked by extreme neglect and privation, a family environment filled with violence and abuse,” the Supreme Court said.

The Texas Tribune identified Andrus’ lawyer as former Fort Bend County prosecutor James “Sid” Crowley. The lawyer died in 2019, according to an obituary cited by the newspaper.

Andrus was born when his mother was 17. When he was young, his mother sold drugs and engaged in prostitution. Often, she used drugs in front of the children. She also “brought with her a revolving door of drug-addicted, sometimes physically violent, boyfriends,” the Supreme Court said.

By the time Andrus was 12, he and his four siblings were often left alone while their mother binged on drugs. Often, there was not enough food to eat.

Andrus assumed responsibility for the household. He cleaned and cooked, got his siblings ready for school, and helped with their homework. At the same time, he struggled with mental health issues. He had been diagnosed with affective psychosis, a mental health condition marked by symptoms such as depression and inability to regulate emotions, at age 10 or 11.

Andrus was sentenced to juvenile detention at age 16 for being a lookout for friends who were robbing a woman. In detention, he spent long periods in solitary confinement for infractions such as reporting voices telling him to do bad things. He was given large doses of psychotropic drugs, and he also threatened suicide.

He was released, and then, while awaiting trial for the carjacking, Andrus attempted to die by suicide.

Nearly none of the evidence was presented at trial, however. “That is because Andrus’ defense counsel not only neglected to present it; he failed even to look for it. Indeed, counsel performed virtually no investigation of the relevant evidence,” the Supreme Court said.

The lawyer presented no opening statement and conceded Andrus’ guilt in the closing argument. During the penalty phase of the trial, the lawyer once again presented no opening statement.

Andrus’ mother and biological father testified in the penalty phase, but they did not mention his childhood environment. Andrus’ mother “sketched a portrait of a tranquil upbringing, during which Andrus got himself into trouble despite his family’s best efforts,” the Supreme Court said. “On her account, Andrus fell into drugs entirely on his own: Drugs were not available at home, Andrus did not use them at home, and she would have intervened had she known about Andrus’ drug habits.”

Andrus’ lawyer decided to present more witnesses after the trial judge questioned his decision to rest the case.

An expert witness talked about the effects of drug use on developing adolescent brains. A prison counselor said Andrus started having remorse in the months before the trial. In his own testimony, Andrus said he and his siblings were often left home alone, and he started taking drugs at age 15.

The Supreme Court said Andrus’ lawyer had overlooked “vast tranches of mitigating evidence” and had unwittingly aided the state’s case in aggravation when the mother testified about a tranquil childhood.

The first time that the lawyer met Andrus’ mother was when she was subpoenaed to testify, and the first time that he met Andrus’ biological father was when he showed up at the courthouse to take the stand. The lawyer didn’t get in touch with the expert witness until just before voir dire, and he didn’t become aware of the prison counselor until partway through trial.

Nor did the lawyer know that Andrus attempted to die by suicide in prison or that he was badly traumatized from his experience in juvenile detention.

The lawyer also said he was unaware of Andrus’ mental health issues, even though materials prepared by a mitigation expert said Andrus had been diagnosed with affective psychosis.

The mitigation expert had also warned the lawyer that she had concerns about Andrus’ mother. The mother told the expert that she had “too many kids” and had taken out a $10,000 life-insurance policy on Andrus, which would allow her to collect if he was executed.

“In short, counsel performed virtually no investigation, either of the few witnesses he called during the case in mitigation, or of the many circumstances in Andrus’ life that could have served as powerful mitigating evidence,” the Supreme Court said. “The untapped body of mitigating evidence was, as the habeas hearing revealed, simply vast.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented in an opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch.

Alito said the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had found that Andrus failed to show prejudice, and there was strong support for the holding in the record.

While awaiting trial for the carjacking killings, Andrus “carried out a reign of terror in jail,” Alito said. “He assaulted another detainee, attacked and injured corrections officers, threw urine in an officer’s face, repeatedly made explicit threats to kill officers and staff, flooded his cell and threw excrement on the walls, and engaged in other disruptive acts.”

Andrus also had the words “murder weapon” tattooed on his hands and a smoking gun tattooed on his forearm.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals “has already held once that Andrus failed to establish prejudice. I see no good reason why it should be required to revisit the issue,” Alito said.

The case is Andrus v. Texas. Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

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