When a Minister Is Murdered, There Is No Right to Counsel

That's the message the Supreme Court is sending as we approach the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, a famous defendants' rights case.

Chip East/Reuters

Few noticed or seemed to care Monday morning when the United States Supreme Court announced that it had declined to review a death penalty case out of Alabama styled Price v. Thomas. There was no angry retort from the denial of certiorari written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And Google says there was no media coverage of Monday's news anywhere -- including, as near as I can tell, in Fayette County, Alabama, where, in 1991, Christopher Lee Price brutally murdered a husband, a minister, a man named William "Bill" Lynn.

As a matter both of journalism and public policy, this is a shame. Because as America gears up over the next ten days to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the much-revered ruling which purported to give every American the right to counsel, cases like Price v. Thomas remind us how little that right often means in cases where it counts the most. The truth is that the justices sanctified the right to counsel on March 18, 1963 but have spent much of the past 50 years desecrating it.

And the truth out of Alabama is that federal and state judges have consistently denied Price his right to counsel, and even his more basic right to establish that he was denied the right to counsel, by a series of increasingly obtuse procedural rulings that undermine the letter and spirit of Gideon. There is no question that the crime here was shocking and that Price is guilty. But there is no question, too, that his court-appointed lawyer did not come close to providing him with "effective assistance" in the penalty phase of his trial. What does the fabled Gideon case mean 50 years later? It means you don't have the right to counsel you thought you did.

Crime and Punishment

As Alabama officials put it, in their brief asking the Supreme Court not to hear the case on its merits, "the robbery-murder in this case, accomplished with a sword and a dagger, was as brutal as they come." Two men, including Price, broke into the home of Bill and Bessie Lynn on the night of December 22, 1991. Bill Lynn, the victim, was a minister. His wife, Bessie, was wrapping Christmas presents for their grandchildren when the attack began. The chronology of the attack reads like the script of a horror movie. And in the end, as the trial judge stated:

There were a total of thirty-eight (38) cuts, lacerations and stab wounds. Some of the stab wounds were a depth of three (3) or four (4) inches. Other wounds to the body and head indicated that the victim was repeatedly struck in a hacking or chopping motion. One of his arms and was almost severed and his head was lined with numerous wounds... The victim died a slow, lingering and painful death probably from the loss of blood. He was still alive when an ambulance attendant got to him probably thirty (30) minutes to an hour after the initial attack began.

The two assailants were tried separately. Price, who was 19 at the time, was tried first and quickly convicted -- on a Friday afternoon. The penalty phase of his trial began right away and lasted just 30 minutes. After just over two hours of deliberations, still on that Friday afternoon, an Alabama jury recommended a sentence of death by a vote of 10-2. In most states, which require unanimity in jury sentencing in capital cases, that would have been enough to merit a life sentence. In Price's case, he was still just one vote short.

The Trial

No one disputes Price's culpability in the crime. The dispute, as it relates to the constitutional right to counsel, centers around the work his trial attorney did and did not perform during the penalty phase of Price's trial. On that Friday afternoon in February 1993, after the guilty verdict, she did not even ask the judge to delay the penalty phase of Price's trial to at least Monday. This would have given jurors some time to cool off, which might have helped Price, and it would have given the defense team some time to prepare for their critical presentation.

According to Price's current defense team, in their brief asking the Supreme Court to enforce the mandate of Gideon, Price's court-appointed trial lawyer could hardly have done worse in his defense. She neglected to "investigate [Price's] background for potential mitigation evidence," to "speak prior to trial with [Price's] family members, friends and schoolteachers," and to "retain a mental health expert despite her previous acknowledgment that a mental health report was essential to presenting a mitigation case." From Price's Supreme Court brief:

Trial counsel's total lack of preparation left her completely flat footed. ...The only mitigation witness that trial counsel called was Petitioner's mother, Judy Files. Trial counsel had not previously interviewed Mrs. Files, nor had she prepared Mrs. Files to testify. Even more critically, trial counsel was unaware that Mrs. Files had physically and mentally abused Petitioner throughout his life and had allowed several men with whom she had romantic relationships to routinely physically, sexually, and emotionally abuse Petitioner as well.

... The effect of Mrs. Files' incomplete testimony was further diminished when Mrs. Files claimed that these isolated instances of abuse had no long term effect on Petitioner, that Petitioner's biological father was in fact a "good daddy" and "good as gold," and that any abuse Petitioner suffered "just blacked his eyes sometimes and just bruised him, that's all." Because of counsel's deficient failure to prepare for the penalty phase, she did not know how incredibly incomplete, misleading, and ultimately detrimental Mrs. Files's testimony would be. ...

After Mrs. Files finished testifying, the State gave a brief closing argument during which the prosecutor focused the victims multiple lacerations and then claimed, without drawing any objection from the defense, that a death sentence was "the only way" to "assure" that Petitioner did not have "any opportunity" to kill again in Fayette County-- a baseless argument, but one to which Petitioner's trial counsel had effectively opened the door by failing to provide the jury with a complete and accurate portrait of Petitioner's character and life history.

But what happened last was perhaps the worst. During the penalty phase of a capital trial, with a man's life on the line, Price's attorney delegated the closing argument to her "second chair, a recent law school graduate who had not previously addressed the jury" and who "proceeded to give a rambling and timid five-minute closing statement." A lifetime of abuse, a compelling story of psychological harm, and it was all over in a half hour. None of this, Alabama insists to this day, violated Christopher Lee Price's constitutional right to counsel.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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