Friday, January 15, 2016

Court Affirms Denial of Relief to Capital Habeas Petitioners

Jones v. Warrior, 2015 WL 6902610 (11/10/15) (Okl.) (Published) - The 10th upholds the denial of a § 2254 habeas petition in another Oklahoma capital case. Mr. Jones contended his trial counsel should have investigated and presented as witnesses two inmates who said they heard Mr. Jones' accuser admit he was the one who shot and killed the victim and Mr. Jones was not involved. According to the inmates, the accuser said he put the blame on Mr. Jones and testified against him in order to avoid the death penalty. He got 30 years instead. The 10th finds the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ("OCCA") applied the correct deficiency standard. Mr. Jones contended the OCCA gave too much deference to the attorney's decision not to investigate further by characterizing it as a strategic decision. Mr. Jones pointed out a decision that is not informed by reasonable investigation is not entitled to deference. But the 10th thinks the OCCA understood Mr. Jones' claim was one of failure to investigate. The 10th also rejects Mr. Jones' claim that the OCCA unreasonably found trial counsel made an informed strategic decision not to seek to corroborate the one inmate's account that the attorney knew about. The 10th says the OCCA never made that factual finding.

Jackson v. Warrior, 2015 WL 6902069 (11/10/15) (Okl.) (Published) - Yet another 10th affirmance of the denial of a capital defendant's § 2254 petition. The state accused Mr. Jackson of severely injuring a two-year-old boy and then hiding the boy in a crawlspace in near-freezing temperatures in a nearby vacant house and then hours later killing the boy's mother. The jury found the aggravating circumstance that Mr. Jackson created a great risk of death to more than one person. There was a problem with applying that aggravator to this case. The aggravator is only supposed to apply when the risk of death to one or more persons is in proximity---time, location and intent-wise---to the death of the another person. The OCCA did not decide if the aggravator applied. Instead it held it didn't matter because under Brown v. Sanders, 546 U.S. 212 (2006), the suspect aggravator didn't skew the jury's death decision. The jury considered the evidence for that aggravator when considering another aggravator it voted for---killing to avoid arrest or prosecution. The 10th rejects Mr. Jackson's contention that Sanders did not apply to a "weighing state," such as Oklahoma. In a weighing state, the jury compares against mitigating factors only aggravating factors that make a defendant eligible for the death penalty; in non-weighing states, the jury compares whatever aggravating factors there are, whether they are eligibility factors or not. Sanders eliminated the different treatment for weighing and non-weighing states, the 10th holds. So the OCCA applied the correct clearly established S Ct. law: Sanders. The 10th also thinks the OCCA understood the difference between the admissibility of evidence of the child's injuries and the use of that evidence to give aggravating weight to the valid sentencing factor of killing to avoid prosecution---a distinction Sanders requires to be made in applying its harmlessness test. The 10th further finds it was okay to admit a doctor's detailed testimony about the boy's injuries, even though the only relevance of those injuries to any legitimate aggravating factor was how they would motivate Mr. Jackson to kill the boy's mother to avoid prosecution. The 10th says it was reasonable for the OCCA to conclude that the more severe the nature of the boy's injuries, as only a physician could describe, the more likely Mr. Jackson was aware of the gravity of his crime and concerned about its ramifications.

The 10th finds the OCCA was not unreasonable in concluding counsel's failure to prevent a pastor's improper testimony was not sufficiently prejudicial. The pastor, who worked at a drug-abuse program for which Mr. Jackson volunteered, first testified that he felt Mr. Jackson's life in prison would have value. But when the prosecutor asked what his opinion would be if Mr. Jackson had intentionally beaten the boy's mother to death, the pastor said the death penalty would then be appropriate, but he didn't think the killing was intentional. The 10th concludes this was harmless, given the evidence of the horrible crimes Mr. Jackson committed and the mitigating evidence Mr. Jackson presented. The 10th says: "Given this ample evidence both weighing for and against the death penalty," the OCCA's decision was reasonable.