11th Circuit affirms grant of penalty phase relief to Georgia death row inmate

On October 17, 2019, the Eleventh Circuit (Marcus, with E. Carnes and Tjoflat), in a pre-AEDPA case, issued a decision affirming the grant of habeas relief to Lawrence Jefferson on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at the sentencing phase.  Jefferson had been sentenced to death for the robbery-murder of a co-worker.  A key issue in the appeal was whether the adverse factual findings by the state habeas court were entitled to the pre-AEDPA presumption of correctness.  See Jefferson v. Upton, 560 U.S. 284 (2010) (per curiam).  The district court found that they were not.  The Eleventh Circuit agreed, noting: " The state habeas court adopted verbatim the State’s proposed order; it offered no guidance to the Assistant Attorney General drafting the proposed order, including how to resolve important credibility conflicts; apparently, it did not review the order, other than signing it, dating it, and changing the concluding sentence, notwithstanding the glaring errors it contained; and it did so ex parte without so much as affording Jefferson a chance to challenge any of it or propose an alternative order."

As to the merits of the ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the Eleventh Circuit found, regarding deficient performance: " We think the district court correctly determined that Jefferson’s trial lawyers’ conduct fell beneath an objective standard of reasonableness when they ignored the unambiguous written recommendation of their retained psychologist that a neuropsychological evaluation be conducted in order to rule out an organic etiology and explain Jefferson’s mental health and behavior at the time he committed the homicide.  They also ignored a series of red flags that suggested that Jefferson’s aberrant behavior was the result of organic brain damage sustained at the age of two when his head was run over by an automobile." 

As for prejudice, the Eleventh Circuit concluded: "[T]he district court did not err in finding that Jefferson has been prejudiced by his lawyers’ deficient performance.  Among other things, the jury heard nothing about the extent of the head injury Jefferson sustained when he was struck in the head by an automobile as a two-year-old child; nothing about his five-day hospitalization or the headaches and blackout spells he thereafter suffered; and nothing about the resulting frontal lobe and neurological damage he sustained so early in his life, which likely caused diminished impulse control, irritability and short-temperedness, intermittent outbursts of rage, impaired judgment, and an inability to foresee the consequences of his actions.  All of this is to say that the jury was presented with a profoundly misleading picture of Jefferson’s sentencing profile and moral culpability because the most important mitigating circumstances were withheld.  Indeed, the most powerful explanation for an otherwise inexplicable crime -- that Jefferson suffered from organic brain damage that severely impaired his judgment and his ability to control his behavior -- was never presented to the jury."