Federal Court Grants Relief to Alabama Death Row Inmate Derrick DeBruce


A federal appeals court Tuesday reversed Derrick DeBruce’s death sentence because his lawyer performed so poorly at his sentencing that he was denied the adequate representation guaranteed by the Constitution.

Mr. DeBruce was convicted of capital murder in the 1991 shooting of a customer during a robbery of an auto parts store in Talladega, Alabama. His lawyer took on the case less than a month before trial and did not investigate his background because, he later testified, he didn’t have time. Instead, he put on one witness, Mr. DeBruce’s mother, who told the jury her son had completed high school, attended the University of Alabama, and had an impoverished but otherwise unremarkable childhood. Mr. DeBruce was sentenced to death.

Different lawyers later presented evidence from two medical experts that showed he dropped out of school at age sixteen after reaching only the seventh grade; suffers from brain damage and seizures that cause paralysis, Blackouts, and memory loss; and has low intellectual functioning. Two of Mr. DeBruce’s sisters testified that he grew up in a poor family of eleven children with an abusive alcoholic father, in a violent housing project where he was attacked by gangs on his way to school and witnessed stabbings and shootings. For not following instructions or being unable to understand his homework, his older sister beat him virtually every day with switches and extension cords, withheld meals, left him in a closet for hours at a time, and even threatened him with a knife.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals held that the trial lawyer was not deficient for failing to investigate and that the evidence he failed to discover would not have made a difference at sentencing. In this week’s decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, based in Atlanta, disagreed.

The court found that the lawyer performed inadequately when he overlooked a pre-trial report and school records that clearly contradicted the mother’s testimony due to “rush and inattention.” And “[b]ecause of trial counsel’s deficient performance, DeBruce’s jury was given almost no reason to spare his life.”

The jury “heard nothing of the daily beatings that DeBruce suffered as a child[,] his resistance to joining gangs despite their assaults and intimidation, the pervasive violence in his neighborhood that caused him to witness the stabbing of a neighbor and his brother being shot, his one or more suicide attempts, DeBruce’s efforts to nurse his sister while she recovered from an incapacitating stroke, DeBruce’s alcoholic and disengaged father, or his struggles in school and his low-average intelligence.”

Where there is a “reasonable probability” that the jury would have chosen life instead of death if it had heard all the evidence, a new trial is required. Finding this undiscovered evidence probably would have made a difference in Mr. DeBruce’s case, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that he was prejudiced by his lawyer’s failure to present it and reversed Mr. DeBruce’s death sentence.