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United States v. Barrett.

No. 19-7049.  E.D.Okla. Judge Matheson. Sixth Amendment Ineffective Assistance of Counsel—28 USC § 2255—Prejudice Sufficient to Vacate Death Sentence—Mitigating Evidence.

January 18, 2021


Defendant shot and killed a state trooper when drug task force officers attempted to execute a warrant at his home in 1999. The evidence at trial and at the sentencing hearing depicted defendant as having planned a lethal attack on police officers. In mitigation, defense counsel introduced testimony that defendant was a loved family member and a good person who was sorry for his crime. But defense counsel did not introduce evidence that defendant experienced abuse as a child; suffered from brain damage, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder; and struggled to exercise judgment in pressured situations. The jury recommended, and the court imposed, the death penalty.

In 2012, defendant petitioned for relief under 28 USC § 2255. The Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded for the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing on whether trial counsel was deficient in not investigating defendant’s background and mental health, and to determine whether he suffered prejudice from any deficiency in the penalty phase. A magistrate judge recommended a finding of deficient performance and resulting prejudice. Although it found counsel’s performance deficient, the district court rejected the finding of prejudice and denied relief. It granted a certificate of appealability on the prejudice issue.

On appeal, defendant argued that the district court should have adopted the magistrate judge’s recommended finding that defense counsel’s deficient performance caused prejudice. In claims of ineffective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant must show that counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and the deficient performance resulted in prejudice. Where only a unanimous jury may impose the death penalty, the question is whether it is reasonably probable that at least one juror would have struck a different balance. Evidence of childhood abuse, neglect, and instability can play a significant role in mitigation. The Tenth Circuit analyzed the aggravating and mitigating evidence and concluded that if defense counsel had presented evidence of defendant’s mental impairments and childhood abuse at sentencing, there was a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have recommended a life sentence rather than a death sentence.

The finding of no prejudice was reversed, the death sentence was vacated, and the case was remanded for resentencing.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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