Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Capital Defendant Not Entitled to New Trial When His Attorney Failed to Investigate a Psychological Report Suggesting a Possible Organic Brain Disorder

Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Capital Defendant Not Entitled to New Trial When His Attorney Failed to Investigate a Psychological Report Suggesting a Possible Organic Brain Disorder

Article excerpt

A defendant charged with murder and facing a possible death sentence has a right to present mitigating evidence that weighs against the issuance of the death penalty. This can include evidence of a mental illness or mental retardation that demonstrates the defendant's diminished capacity and reduced responsibility for the crime. The U.S. Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), established that a defendant has a Sixth Amendment constitutional right to "effective assistance" of counsel in discovering and presenting this evidence during the sentencing phase, and the Court indicated in Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510 (2003), that this right required the defendant's attorney to diligently explore potentially relevant mental health evidence.

In a Virginia case, the Fourth Circuit ruled that defendant's counsel had acted reasonably in not further investigating or sharing with defendant's court-appointed mental health expert a 1984 psychological report contained in the defendant's school records that was received three days before trial and suggested the possibility of "organic brain deficiency" in the defendant. The court reasoned that (1) the attorney had already amassed enormous amounts of information confirming that the defendant was not mentally impaired to a degree that could be reasonably considered mitigating, (2) the nature of the defendant's crimes did not indicate a mental impairment at the time of their commission, (3) an independent evaluation of the defendant had concluded that he had an I. …

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