US Supreme Court Declines to Hear Missouri Supreme Court Finding of Ineffective Counsel for Failure to Call Mental Health Expert

Missouri v. Vaca, 314 SW3d 331, (Mo. 2010), pet. for cert. denied February 22, 2011

The United States Supreme has refused to hear the State of Missouri’s request for review of the Missouri Supreme Court’s determination that defense counsel was ineffective at the penalty phase of the trial for failure to present mental health evidence for no strategic reason. The defendant had been charged with a series of armed robberies. Defense counsel had obtained a mental health evaluation that revealed the defendant was schizophrenic and evidence indicated he had suffered from this condition most of his life. The prosecutor was successful in excluding the defendant’s mental health evidence during the guilt phase of the trial. During deliberations, the jury sent questions back to the judge asking among other things whether there had been any evaluation of the defendant’s mental condition. Knowing the defendant suffered from mental illness and that the jury had questions regarding his mental state, defense counsel failed to call a mental health expert as a witness during the penalty phase of the trial. The Court held that while a defense attorney has flexibility to make strategic decisions about whether to introduce mental health evidence, the evidence revealed that the defense counsel did not even think about it. Missouri had just changed its law to provide for bifurcated guilt and penalty phase trials in noncapital cases and this was defense counsel’s first such trial. The Court thus held that a new sentencing hearing was required.

Found in DMHL Volume 30 Issue 4