Ineffective assistance of counsel

Morris v. Carpenter, 802 F.3d 825 (6th Cir. 2015)

Granting of habeas relief and finding of ineffective assistance of counsel in sentencing phase vacated by Circuit Court

Background: Following affirmance of his convictions for first-degree murder and aggravated rape and the imposition of a capital sentence, Farris Morris sought federal habeas relief in the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. Specifically, Morris argued that his trial counsel failed to investigate his mental illness or to use a mitigation specialist at the penalty phase. The District Court granted his petition and vacated his sentence on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel at the penalty phase of Morris’s trial. The Warden appealed.

Holding: The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the District Court’s grant of habeas relief. The Court held that Morris’s trial counsel’s failure to present additional mentalhealth testimony as mitigation evidence at sentencing did not render counsel’s performance deficient. Unlike the counsel in Saranchak and Hardwick, the Sixth Circuit found that Morris’s trial counsel had a legitimate strategy reason for not presenting additional mental health testimony in the penalty phase—the additional evidence could have opened the door to “rebuttal evidence of Morris’s history of drug dealing, drug use, and other illegal acts.” This risk of damaging rebuttal evidence made defense counsel’s decision to avoid presenting additional mental health evidence reasonable and not constitutionally deficient.

Notable Points:

Reasonable refusal to introduce additional mental health evidence: Counsel presented testimony at the guilt phase “to show how cocaine intoxication and withdrawal can affect the user’s ability to reason.” Although, the defense team did not present new expert testimony at sentencing, they consulted with mental-health experts to form their strategy, and expert testimony was already before the jury. Additionally, mitigation witnesses testified about “Morris’s character, work habits, and good behavior in prison.”

Found in Found in DMHL Volume 34, Issue 4