The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals on October 1, 2010, ordered a new trial for Alabama death row prisoner Larry Smith, whose lawyer failed to adequately prepare for trial. The court also granted LaSamuel Gamble relief from his death sentence because his appointed lawyers did not investigate or present mitigating evidence at trial. The finding of inadequate counsel in these cases raises questions about the fairness of capital trials and the reliability of death sentences in Alabama.
The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the postconviction trial judge’s ruling in Larry Smith’s case, granting him a new trial based on his lawyer’s ineffectiveness at both phases of trial.
Mr. Smith’s trial lawyer had never before tried a capital murder case. The Court of Criminal Appeals found that, while the evidence indicated that trial counsel performed “some” investigation, he failed to locate numerous witnesses who would have provided testimony critical to Mr. Smith’s defense.
Mr. Smith’s counsel presented only two witnesses at the penalty phase of trial, and later claimed he made a strategic decision not to present additional witnesses because he thought it would annoy the jury. The Court of Criminal Appeals held, however, “that labeling a decision as ‘strategic’ does not render that decision above reproach; rather, counsel must have performed an adequate enough investigation to make an informed and educated decision.”
The lawyer had done little or no investigation himself, and hired an unqualified investigator who spent just three hours on the case. This investigation was unreasonable and deficient, the court held, and therefore could not support any strategic decision about what evidence to present.
LaSamuel Gamble’s lawyers presented no evidence at the penalty phase of trial, even though powerful and relevant mitigating testimony from family members, teachers, and friends, and a wealth of documentary evidence, was available to inform the jury about his “bleak” childhood.
Evidence later presented at a postconviction hearing showed that Mr. Gamble’s father was an alcoholic who violently abused his family. He passed out drunk one night on top of his one-month-old daughter and smothered her to death. Mr. Gamble’s mother’s low IQ placed her in the intellectually disabled range, and she abandoned LaSamuel in Atlanta when he was a small child. LaSamuel lived with more than a dozen relatives in a filthy “run-down shack.” Like his mother, he also had cognitive deficits.
Because of his lawyers’ ineffectiveness, the jury did not learn about any of this powerful mitigating evidence before deciding that Mr. Gamble should be sentenced to death. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the postconviction trial judge that counsel’s failure to discover and present this “plethora of evidence” prejudiced Mr. Gamble, and vacated his death sentence.
The failure to provide adequate counsel to capital defendants and death row prisoners is a defining feature of the death penalty in Alabama. As these two cases demonstrate, whether or not a defendant is sentenced to death typically depends more on the quality of his lawyer than on any other factor.