U.S. Supreme Court Will Review Inadequate Lawyering in Alabama Death Row Prisoner Holly Wood’s Case


On Monday, May 18, 2009, the United States Supreme Court granted Alabama death row prisoner Holly Wood’s request for review in Wood v. Allen (No. 08-9156).

The Court will address two legal questions arising from Mr. Wood’s case. The first question tests the failure of an inexperienced defense lawyer to present in a capital sentencing proceeding evidence of the defendant’s severe mental impairment.

The second question addresses how federal courts should review state court factual findings under a 1996 law that drastically changed the role of federal courts in ruling on federal habeas corpus petitions from state prisoners.

Holly Wood, a Black man with an IQ less than 70, was too poor to hire a lawyer. The trial court appointed him a lawyer who had just been admitted to the Bar and had no experience in criminal law. Although two other lawyers were appointed, they did not help Mr. Wood’s inexperienced counsel to investigate or present evidence at the sentencing phase.

Counsel did not pursue evidence of Mr. Wood’s severe mental impairments as a mitigating factor even though a competency evaluation revealed that Mr. Wood could not read at better than a third-grade level and had a low IQ. Mr. Wood was convicted and sentenced to death.

Then, in 2002, the United States Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that the Constitution forbids the execution of intellectually disabled people. An Alabama appeals court ordered a hearing to determine whether Mr. Wood is intellectually disabled and whether his lawyer was ineffective for failing to present evidence of his intellectual disability at trial.

Evidence at that hearing showed, and the State agreed, that Mr. Wood’s IQ falls within the intellectually disabled range and that he has has significant limitations in functional academics.

The State wrote an order stating that Mr. Wood nonetheless is not intellectually disabled and that his lawyer made a strategic decision not to put on evidence of his intellectual diability at trial. The trial judge adopted that order word-for-word — a practice that has been criticized by the appellate courts but is common in Alabama. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in turn adopted those findings and the Alabama Supreme Court refused to review the case.

The federal district court did not disagree with the state court’s adopted findings about intellectual disability but found that the evidence did not support the state court’s finding that Mr. Wood’s trial lawyer made a strategic decision not to present evidence of his intellectual disability. The federal court vacated Mr. Wood’s death sentence. That ruling was reversed by the federal appeals court, and Mr. Wood appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The case highlights Alabama’s failure to provide adequate representation to defendants facing the death penalty. Alabama is the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners. There is no state-wide public defender program in the state and over half of the more than 200 people on Alabama’s death row were represented at trial by appointed lawyers whose compensation for out-of-court preparation was capped at $1000.

The Court will hear argument on Mr. Wood’s case after its new term begins in October 2009.