Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Fourth Circuit Rejects Various Mental Health-Related Claims Asserted by Capital Defendant and Affirms Death Penalty; Ruling Not Disturbed

Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Fourth Circuit Rejects Various Mental Health-Related Claims Asserted by Capital Defendant and Affirms Death Penalty; Ruling Not Disturbed

Article excerpt

In reviewing the appeal of Brandon Wayne Hedrick, who was convicted by a Virginia jury of capital murder, the Fourth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals rejected a pair of assertions that are often raised on appeal in death penalty cases: (1) the defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel and (2) the defendant is mentally retarded. Pivotal to this review was a report and testimony provided by the court-appointed clinical psychologist who evaluated the defendant.

The United States Supreme Court in Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510 (2003), established that the attorney for a capital defendant is required to make a reasonable effort to discover all reasonably available mitigating evidence. Among other things, Hedrick argued that his attorneys failed to (1) adequately investigate the potential mitigating effect of his childhood, (2) develop evidence of his low intelligence, and (3) develop evidence of his substance abuse problems. The Fourth Circuit rejected these assertions.

With regard to the investigation of his childhood, the court noted that Hedrick's attorney had retained a psychological expert, Dr. Gary Hawk, to help identify and present mitigating evidence. The court found that this expert's report included information about the defendant's childhood experiences, including his father's previous problems with substance and alcohol abuse, but did not suggest that the defendant's childhood experiences would be of value to his efforts to identify relevant mitigating factors at sentencing or merited further exploration. Instead, the report identified the defendant's intellectual limitations, his immaturity, his intoxication and alcohol and drug dependence at the time of the offense, and his consistent acknowledgement of his role in the crime as the mitigating factors worthy of attention. Considering this and other evidence, the court concluded that the attorneys' performance had not been deficient or unreasonable with regard to a "bad childhood" theory of mitigation.

With regard to the asserted failure to adequately develop evidence of the defendant's low intelligence, the court noted that this was a mitigating factor that the psychologist's report recommended should be pursued. …

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