Alabama Court Finds Trial Lawyer Ineffective in Death Penalty Case


The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday held that Steven Petric was denied adequate counsel at his capital trial and affirmed that his capital murder conviction and death sentence must be set aside.

Mr. Petric was convicted of capital murder in 2009 and sentenced to death. After he was denied relief on direct appeal, he filed a petition for postconviction relief, alleging that his trial counsel was ineffective.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The Sixth Amendment provides that a person who is accused of a crime and cannot afford to hire a lawyer must be provided effective counsel. Among other things, effective counsel has a duty—especially in a death penalty case—to investigate.

“Defense counsel must, at a minimum, conduct a reasonable investigation enabling [counsel] to make informed decisions about how best to represent [the] client,” the Court of Criminal Appeals wrote in Friday’s decision.

Constitutionally effective counsel must develop trial strategy in the true sense—not what bears a false label of “strategy”—based on what investigation reveals witnesses will actually testify to, not based on what counsel guesses they might say in the absence of a full investigation.

Mr. Petric’s trial counsel failed to even hire an investigator for more than a year after the trial judge granted him the funds to hire one. The investigator was hired less than eight months before the trial started and spent less than a full work week (32.5 hours) on Mr. Petric’s case.

In his opening statement, trial counsel told the jury that somebody else committed the murder—the same man who committed a similar murder six months earlier in Dothan—and that DNA evidence found at the crime scene could match that other man.

But trial counsel never looked at the records from the Dothan murder, which showed that the DNA evidence did not, in fact, match the other man.

As a result, counsel had to abandon the defense theory in the middle of trial, and he presented no witnesses in Mr. Petric’s defense—breaking his promise to the jury that he would show them dramatic evidence of another killer and prejudicing Mr. Petric.

Not only did counsel fail to investigate his own defense theory, but he also failed to investigate and present evidence to counter the State’s case. The State spent a great deal of the trial calling witnesses and presenting evidence about an earlier murder in Illinois that Mr. Petric was accused of committing. “In fact,” the court wrote, “at one point it appeared that Petric was being tried for the [Illinois] murder.”

But Mr. Petric was acquitted of that crime, thanks to a wealth of evidence presented by his Illinois lawyers. Trial counsel could easily have put on that same evidence, but he never even called the Illinois lawyers. Because “counsel failed to present the plethora of evidence that Petric’s Illinois counsel presented when that counsel secured Petric’s not-guilty verdict,” the appeals court wrote, “the jury was left to conclude that the state’s evidence against Petric in the [Illinois] murder was uncontested.”

Postconviction Relief

In 2018, the circuit court granted Mr. Petric’s petition and spelled out in an 118-page order how his trial counsel failed to meet the constitutional requirement for effective counsel. Because Mr. Petric’s right to counsel was violated, the court ordered that he be given a new trial.

The State appealed, relying heavily on statements made by one of Mr. Petric’s trial lawyers—who the circuit court found was not credible because his testimony was “repeatedly contradicted by virtually every other witness and evidence presented at the Rule 32 hearing,” he was “hostile to Petric’s interests,” and he tried to improperly influence other witnesses’ testimony.

The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the State’s arguments and upheld the circuit court’s order for a new trial.