Ineffective Assistance of Counsel in Death Penalty Case

Daniel v. Commr., Alabama Dept. of Corrections, 822 F.3d 1248 (11th Cir. 2016)

Failure of defense counsel to adequately investigate and present at penalty hearing the deprivations and traumas of the defendant’s past as mitigation evidence may constitute ineffective assistance of counsel and entitle defendant to a new penalty phase hearing.

Background: Renard Daniel was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He filed for habeas corpus alleging ineffective assistance of counsel at the guilt and penalty phases of his trial. Daniel claimed that counsel was deficient in investigating and presenting mitigating evidence and rebutting aggravating evidence. Daniel’s childhood included witnessing his mother kill his father when he was three years old, being sexually abused by his stepfather for several years beginning when he was nine years old, and a history of borderline intellectual functioning. Daniel’s petition claimed that the sentencing judge and jury heard none of these details, and that the failure to present this evidence also prejudiced the outcome of the penalty phase of his trial. The District court, for procedural and substantive reasons, denied his claim. Daniel appealed to the Circuit court.

Holding: The Second Circuit looked to the American Bar Association (ABA) guidelines to evaluate the standard for investigations into mitigating evidence. The ABA suggests that investigations “should comprise efforts to discover all reasonably available mitigating evidence and evidence to rebut any aggravating evidence that may be introduced by the prosecutor.” The court found that Daniel’s trial counsel made no meaningful contact with Daniel’s mother, siblings, or mental health professionals and actually ignored the family’s request to inform him of Daniel’s extensive history of intellectual disabilities and being sexually abused. The court found that any reasonable and competent attorney would have made a deeper investigation of Daniel’s history, and thus there was enough evidence to bring an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The court noted that evidence of mental problems, childhood abuse, and non-violent characterizations of past crimes is inherently mitigating and could change the jury’s mindset. It also found that the district court’s conclusion that Daniel failed to plead how he was prejudiced was an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent and federal law.

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 2