Mitigation Evidence and Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Salazar v. State, No. SC13-1233, 2016 WL 636103 (Fla. Feb. 18, 2016)

In a first degree murder case in which the defendant received a death sentence, the failure of defense counsel to investigate and present mitigation, including evidence regarding the defendant’s traumatic childhood and low intellectual functioning, sufficiently “undermined” “confidence in the outcome” so as to warrant remand for new hearing.

Background: After a jury trial, Neil Salazar was convicted of first-degree murder and related crimes and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed both the conviction and the death sentence. Salazar appealed and petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus. The basis of the appeal was that Salazar’s trial counsel was deficient and had failed to investigate his background and intellectual functioning and present mitigation evidence at the penalty phase.

Holdings: The Supreme Court of Florida denied Salazar’s habeas petition, but they remanded the case for a new penalty phase, holding that Salazar’s trial counsel had provided ineffective assistance at the penalty phase. The court held that Salazar had demonstrated both deficiency and prejudice in regard to his trial counsel’s performance at the penalty phase. Specifically, the court found that there was a reasonable probability that the result would have been different if trial counsel had presented evidence regarding Salazar’s low IQ, adaptive deficits, head injury, and family history.

Notable Points:

Because the known evidence would lead a reasonable attorney to investigate further, counsel’s failure to do so was objectively unreasonable: Salazar’s trial counsel was deficient—an element of the ineffective assistance claim—in failing at the penalty phase to investigate Salazar’s background and intellectual functioning. Specifically, a psychologist’s report from the defendant’s preliminary evaluation had directly informed trial counsel of defendant’s mental health problems and possible brain damage. Given this information, it was objectively unreasonable for Salazar’s trial counsel not to investigate further.

Counsel’s failure resulted in prejudice at the penalty phase: The Supreme Court of Florida also held that Salazar had been prejudiced by his trial counsel’s failures in the penalty phase. Considering the additional mitigation evidence relating to Salazar’s intellectual functioning, low IQ scores, adaptive deficits, childhood head injuries, and family history, there was a reasonable probability that hearing this additional evidence at the penalty phase would have led to a result other than the imposition of a death sentence.

Found in Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 1