Ineffective counsel at two levels entitles death row inmate to new sentencing, 4th Circuit says
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A federal appeals court has ruled that a death row inmate in South Carolina is entitled to a new sentencing hearing because of failures by his trial counsel and appellate counsel.
Ineffective trial counsel failed to present evidence of Sammie Louis Stokes’ traumatic childhood, while his appellate counsel failed to pursue the issue on appeal, according to a 2-1 Aug. 19 opinion by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Richmond, Virginia.
Stokes was convicted of raping and murdering 21-year-old Connie Snipes after receiving $2,000 from Snipes’ mother-in-law to carry out the crime.
Stokes “confessed to capital murder, putting mitigation of the death penalty at the heart of his defense,” Gregory wrote. “His trial counsel prepared some personal mitigation evidence but, at the last minute, withheld it. Instead, counsel presented a single witness at sentencing: a retired prison warden who was unprepared and counterproductive. The jury returned a death sentence without hearing a word from the defense about Stokes as an individual.”
Gregory said Stokes’ childhood in Branchville, South Carolina, “was marked by extreme abuse and neglect.” Both parents were alcoholics. His mother and stepfather “fought explosively,” and his mother was physically abused by her husband. Stokes was disciplined with an extension cord and sexually abused by a babysitter. Stokes and his sister often skipped school and stole food from neighbors.
When Stokes was 9 years old, he saw his father die on the front lawn. When Stokes was 13, he saw his intoxicated mother fall into a coma and die. His grandmother ran a brothel out of her home. He chose to live unsupervised with his stepfather and began using drugs and alcohol.
One of Stokes’ defense lawyers was a former prosecutor who personally prosecuted Stokes for an assault on his ex-wife.
Stokes’ lawyers had planned to argue in the penalty phase that his HIV-positive condition and his declining health made him especially suitable for a life sentence. On the eve of sentencing, Stokes decided that his lawyers could not mention his HIV status.
Although the defense team knew “the broad outlines” of Stokes’ life story, they decided not to present any evidence. Yet Stokes’ sister and aunt were prepared to testify, as were a psychiatrist, a neurologist and a social worker.
Instead, the defense lawyers called the former prison warden in hopes of showing that Stokes would be adaptable to life in prison. The warden didn’t interview Stokes, however, and he emphasized that any bad behavior by Stokes would be curtailed by guards, who could use lethal force if necessary.
The trial lawyers reasoned that a jury would not be receptive to evidence about Stokes’ background. One of the trial lawyers explained his reasoning this way: “How do you go to a jury and say, ‘Look, we want you to look at the fact that he had a poor upbringing, particularly African American, which a lot of us had struggles coming up.’ How do you say, ‘Well, just because he had a poor upbringing, you need to overlook the fact that he raped this woman, you need to overlook the fact that he cut her vagina out, you need to overlook the fact that he cut her nipples off, you need to overlook the fact that he killed somebody else.’”
The appeals court said the concern reflects a misunderstanding of the duty to mitigate. The aim is to mitigate “moral culpability,” not to ask jurors to excuse a defendant’s actions, the appeals court said.
“The basis for trial counsel’s decision—that a South Carolina jury in the 1990s, and particularly Black people, would not be open to a personal mitigation narrative—was objectively unreasonable,” Gregory wrote.
“The unheard mitigation evidence would have shown Stokes experienced an ‘extraordinarily high’ degree of childhood adversity, likely surpassing 99.9% of the population,” Gregory said.
The appeals court said Stokes did not forfeit his ineffective counsel claim because his postconviction review lawyers provided ineffective assistance by failing to pursue it.
Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr. dissented. He argued that the defense lawyers’ strategic decisions merit deference, and their strategy was to argue that an HIV-positive status was effectively its own death sentence. Had the lawyers called Stokes’ sister, she would have testified to his moody nature and the fact that his co-defendant was afraid of Stokes—information that could prove to be detrimental.
Quattlebaum said he does not see “how any additional expert or fact testimony about his upbringing and difficult childhood would outweigh the gruesome and horrific nature of Connie Snipes’ murder.”