Federal Court Finds Inadequate Lawyering in Three Recent Death Penalty Cases


The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently ordered relief in two Florida cases and a Georgia case after finding that lawyers representing the defendants at their capital trials failed to provide adequate legal representation. The Sixth Amendent requires that lawyers in death penalty cases thoroughly investigate and prepare for the sentencing phase in order to ensure the reliability of death sentences. But historically there have been widespread problems with lawyers falling short of meeting their professional obligations in these cases. The federal appeals court’s recent decisions reinforce the need for adequate counsel in death penalty cases.

In three decisions in as many months, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the death sentences imposed on Paul Cooper and Terrell Johnson in Florida and on Eric Ferrell in Georgia because their trial lawyers did not present powerful mitigating evidence that likely would have prevented them from being sentenced to death.

Standards requiring defense attorneys to fully investigate potential mitigating evidence in preparation for the penalty phase of a capital case have been in place for some time. Yet the trial lawyers in all three of these cases conducted half-hearted investigations and presented minimal evidence at trial – even though they had clues that powerful mitigating evidence of extreme physical abuse, trauma, and neurological deficits existed.

The court reversed 18-year-old Paul Cooper’s sentence because his jury and judge “did not have the full story of Cooper’s abusive background . . . [T]he jury heard a small sliver of his volatile upbringing, [but] heard nothing of Cooper’s life of horrific abuse rendered by both his father and brother, his use of drugs and alcohol beginning at age 11 to escape his family and the abuse, his abandonment by his mother for short stretches of time, his seventh-grade education and learning deficits, and his depression.”

Similarly, in Johnson, the court found that the description, details, and depth of abuse in Johnson’s background that were brought to light in postconviction proceedings far exceeded what the jury was told at trial. Indeed, “[t]he picture [trial counsel] painted for the jury was of Johnson having cold and uncaring parents, something in the nature of the ‘American Gothic’ couple. With a reasonable investigation, though, he could have painted for the jury the picture of a young man that resembled the tormented soul in ‘The Scream.'”

The court held that Mr. Ferrell’s counsel “conducted a profoundly incomplete investigation, and [his] judgment to so sharply limit [his] inquiry fell far outside the wide range of professional competence,” because he did not speak to any penalty-phase witnesses until after Mr. Ferrell was convicted and failed to discover that his father’s gambling addiction devastated and impoverished the family; he bore the brunt of his father’s considerable anger and violent beatings; his family was repeatedly evicted; and that he had witnessed his mother attempt suicide.

These cases demonstrate that inadequate lawyering in capital cases remains a serious problem.