U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Sentencing Win for Alabama Death Row Inmate James Lawhorn


The United States Supreme Court on December 13, 2010, denied the State of Alabama’s request for review of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals’s decision reversing James Lawhorn’s death sentence because of his lawyer’s poor work in the penalty portion of the case.

In a decision that reaffirmed the requirement that lawyers must be effective and that verdicts are not reliable without adequate assistance of counsel, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Mr. Lawhorn’s lawyer’s decision not to make a closing argument at the penalty phase was based on a “gross misunderstanding” of Alabama law and fell short of defense counsel’s obligation to understand “the legal procedures and the legal significance of tactical decisions within those proceedings.”

The Eleventh Circuit also emphasized the importance of the defense closing argument in a capital case: “Because one of the most important functions of the capital sentencing process is the opportunity to humanize the defendant, the importance of the defense’s closing argument cannot, therefore, be overstated.” The court wrote that closing argument is counsel’s one “last clear chance” to marshal all of the mitigating evidence before the jury and explain or minimize the prosecution’s evidence.

The State of Alabama appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that even if defense counsel performed poorly, it made no difference in the outcome of Mr. Lawhorn’s sentence. The United States Supreme Court rejected the State’s request for review, leaving in place the Eleventh Circuit decision.

Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Alito and Thomas, dissented, arguing that it was reasonable to conclude that the lawyer’s failure to advocate for Mr. Lawhorn’s life at the penalty phase would not have made a difference in the outcome of the case.

The Eleventh Circuit found that a closing statement could have refreshed the jury’s memory about evidence that Mr. Lawhorn’s involvement in the offense was mitigated by his young age at the time, troubled family background, and the fact that he was pressured to participate. Because one juror voted for life even without a closing argument, defense counsel “needed only to convince two other jurors to alter the outcome of the proceedings.”