Tenth Circuit Finds Right to Counsel in Post-Conviction Proceeding to Determine Whether Mental Retardation Bars Imposition of Death Penalty; Rejects Use of Flynn Effect in Determining IQ

Hooks v. Workman, 689 F.3d 1148 (10th Cir. 2012)

Although there is no right to counsel in post-conviction proceedings, the Tenth Circuit has held that a capital defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to counsel in a post-conviction (Atkins) hearing conducted after his original conviction to determine whether he is mentally retarded (intellectually disabled). Such a finding would bar imposition of the death penalty. The Court then proceeded to review each of the defendant’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, rejecting all of them except one, but finding no cumulative evidence or prejudice on that claim to warrant overturning the jury verdict. On review of the jury’s finding that the defendant was not mentally retarded, the Court found that the results of the defendant’s numerous IQ tests fell within a “gray” area, but the scores were not entitled to be adjusted downward due to the “Flynn” effect. Because there is no scientific consensus on its validity, failure to apply it is not “contrary to clearly established federal law.” Finally, the Court found that defendant’s trial counsel in the original trial was grossly ineffective during the sentencing phase, overturned the death sentence, and remanded the case to the Oklahoma courts for a new sentencing hearing.

Victor Hooks was convicted in 1989 of first degree murder of his common law wife and of first degree manslaughter of her unborn child. Hooks and his common law wife had lived together for four years and were the parents of a one-year-old daughter. His wife was also 24 weeks pregnant with their second child. After originally claiming that she had been beaten and raped while on a walk, Hooks confessed to police that they had been fighting, she slapped him, and he then struck her, knocked her to the ground and kicked her in the stomach and face. Subsequently he removed her clothing, put her in the bathtub, and shaved a portion of her head. Hooks then cleaned up the apartment and also removed blood from his one-year-old daughter who had been splattered in the course of her mother’s beating.

Hooks was represented at trial by a private attorney hired by his mother. His attorney decided not to pursue an insanity defense believing there was an insufficient factual basis for it, but focused on obtaining a conviction for a lesser-included offense of second degree murder or first degree manslaughter, arguing that Hooks acted in the heat of passion and not with malice aforethought. There was some information that Hooks had been hit by an 18-wheel truck as a child and suffered a traumatic brain injury, and also suffered from chronic psychosis. The evidence also showed that Hooks had abused his wife on prior occasions and was convicted of armed robbery of a liquor store several years earlier. The trial court refused to instruct the jury on the lesser included offenses and the jury then found the defendant guilty of first degree murder, imposing the death penalty, and first degree manslaughter in the death of the unborn child, sentencing him to 500 years imprisonment on that charge.

Hooks challenged his convictions both on direct appeal and through post-conviction petitions for writs of habeas corpus. In 2002, 13 years after Hooks’ conviction, the United States Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321 (2002) that, in light of a national consensus, the execution of a person with mental retardation is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Hooks then filed a second post-conviction petition alleging that he is mentally retarded. In 2004, after a six-day trial, a jury found him not to be mentally retarded. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the determination on both direct appeal and collateral review.

In deciding Atkins, the Supreme Court declined to establish a definition of mental retardation, but left it to the states to do so. In response to Atkins, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals established the following definition in case law:

A person is “mentally retarded” (1) [i]f he or she functions at a significantly sub-average intellectual level that substantially limits his or her ability to understand and process information, to communicate, to learn from experience or mistakes, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand the reactions of others; (2) [t]he mental retardation manifested itself before the age of eighteen (18); and (3) the [m]ental retardation is accompanied by significant limitations in adaptive functioning in at least two …skill areas….However, no person shall be eligible to be considered mentally retarded unless he or she has an intelligence quotient of seventy or below, as reflected by at least one scientifically recognized, scientifically approved, and contemporary intelligent quotient test.

Murphy v. State, 54 P.3d 556, 567-68 (Okla. Crim. App. 2002). A defendant has the burden of proving his mental retardation by a preponderance of the evidence.

Hooks had been administered IQ tests through the years and nine of these test results were presented to the jury with scores ranging from 53 to 80. The experts agreed that this range of scores put Hooks in a “gray area.” Tests of 70 or below, however, all reflected some degree of lack of cooperation on Hooks’ part. The experts agreed that the most reliable scores were those conducted by two of the experts of 72 and 76, neither of which met the 70 or below requirement. Hooks argued that these scores should be adjusted downward to reflect the “Flynn Effect.” The “Flynn Effect” is a phenomenon named for James R. Flynn who discovered that the population’s mean IQ score rises over time by approximately 0.3 points per year. If an individual’s test score is measured against a mean of a population sample from prior years, then his score will be inflated and will not provide an accurate picture of his IQ.

The Tenth Circuit rejected this argument finding that Oklahoma law does not require an adjustment for the “Flynn Effect,” nor did it find any scientific consensus on its validity. The Court held therefore that failure to apply the “Flynn Effect” was not “contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law,” the standard required to overturn a final state court determination on collateral review. Based upon all of the evidence presented, including other evidence related to Hooks’ functional capacity and his adaptive skills, the jury’s finding that he was not mentally retarded was not clearly erroneous.

Hooks also claimed that his counsel at his Atkins trial was ineffective on a number of legal grounds. The State argued that there is no right to counsel in post-conviction proceedings and therefore there is no basis for a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in post-conviction Atkins hearings. The Tenth Circuit recognized that the United States Supreme Court has never held that there is a Sixth Amendment right to counsel in an Atkins hearing. It reasoned, however, that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to have counsel present at all critical stages of criminal proceedings. Although Hooks was convicted years before the Atkins decision and his trial to determine whether he is mentally retarded was necessarily a post-conviction proceeding, this hearing was the first proceeding at which he could raise this claim. The Court held that the Atkins trial is therefore part of the criminal proceeding and is inextricably intertwined with sentencing. It is thus not civil in nature, as post-conviction proceedings normally are. The right to counsel therefore “flows directly from, and is a necessary corollary to the clearly established law of Atkins.”

The Court then examined Hooks’ claims that his counsel was ineffective on the merits. Hooks argued that the standard articulated in United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984), where counsel’s representation fell so far short of that expected of defense counsel that prejudice was presumed, should be applied in his case. In Cronic, the Supreme Court found that some actions of counsel are so likely to prejudice the defendant that the cost of litigating their effect is unjustified and prejudice will be presumed. The Court found, however, that his counsel actively and zealously participated in all phases of the proceedings and therefore held that the standard in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), applied instead. In Strickland, a review of counsel’s performance is a highly deferential one and counsel is presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment. Although counsel failed in one aspect of representation, the Court found that failure was not cumulative or prejudicial to the hearing’s outcome.

The Court next reviewed the effectiveness of counsel at his original trial and found that Hooks counsel at trial in the conviction phase exercised a tactical decision not to raise an insanity defense because it lacked a factual basis. In the sentencing phase, however, the Court found counsel’s representation grossly deficient in his failure to conduct a through investigation or to produce any evidence in mitigation. He failed to challenge the prosecution’s aggravation evidence or to present evidence that revealed Hooks was raised in an abusive and chaotic family, suffered from a brain injury and suffered from chronic psychotic mental health problems, all of which could have elicited sympathy from a juror and mitigated his sentence. Moreover, counsel made his own statements to the jury related to Hooks’ violent tendencies and permitted his own expert to make prejudicial statements related to his violence. The Court therefore vacated the death sentence and remanded the case to the Oklahoma courts for a new sentencing hearing.

Found in DMHL Volume 32 Issue 1