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.

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.

Appeals and Reviews (Alabama Edition)

Price was unsuccessful during his direct appeals. In 2000, he timely asked the Alabama courts for relief by asserting that his trial lawyer's work had violated his right to "effective assistance of counsel" under the Sixth Amendment. The first time he made this request a state judge rejected it because Price had not been specific enough with his allegations. Price was given a chance to amend his petition and he did, adding three pages of detail to it. He also was given an opportunity to gather information about "his physical and mental health" but did not do so.

In April 2002, the state judge again rejected Price's petition -- without giving him an evidentiary hearing on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim. This state judge, Price's current lawyers point out, "adopted in full the 61-page proposed memorandum order that the state had submitted along with its motion to dismiss" Price's request for relief. The prisoner, the judge ruled, had not alleged enough on paper even to warrant a hearing, much less a new sentencing hearing, on his claims to have been deprived of competent counsel.

The case went next to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. In May 2003, that court upheld the lower court's decision. Even if Price's trial attorney's performance had been deficient, this court concluded, the appellate judges "[could] not see how the evidence that [Price] argues should have been elicited at the penalty phase would have had any impact on this sentence." Without ever hearing from any witnesses, Alabama's courts had concluded that Price's crime was so horrific that it didn't really matter how poorly his lawyer had performed at trial.

Appeals and Reviews (Federal Edition)

Price's constitutional claim then went to federal court. Thanks to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, federal judges today are largely powerless to overturn state court decisions denying relief to prisoners alleging constitutional violations. To succeed, a prisoner must demonstrate that the state courts' ruling was "an unreasonable application of" and "contrary to" Supreme Court precedent. In cases like this, where state courts have made an evidentiary evaluation, this is essentially an impossible standard for a defendant to overcome.

So the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals looked at the record in the Price case, and the way the Alabama courts had refused to hold a hearing on Price's Sixth Amendment claims, and declared that it was both unable and unwilling to give the prisoner any help. It was not unreasonable, the 11th Circuit concluded, for the [Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals] to conclude, even without an evidentiary hearing, that [Price] was not prejudiced by his trial counsel's failure to contact his extended family members, friends and schoolteachers."

Nor was the 11th Circuit willing to give Price any help when it came to his trial lawyer's failure to include a mental health expert as a mitigating witness in the penalty phase of Price's trial. As a matter of law, the federal appeals court ruled, it did not matter that this expert might have told jurors about the psychological damage Price had suffered at the hands of his father and his mother's paramours. "In light of the brutal nature of the crime and the specific findings of the court that sentenced him to death," Alabama argued:

The Eleventh Circuit was right to find no reasonable probability that expert testimony regarding his alleged mental problems would have altered the balance of the aggravating and mitigation circumstances that led to the imposition of the death sentence.

Like their state counterparts, the federal judges of the 11th Circuit reached their conclusion about the constitutional irrelevance of Price's mitigating evidence without ever actually seeing any of that evidence introduced in court. Like their state counterparts, the federal appellate judges concluded that the brutal murder of a minister, at his home near Christmas, included such strong aggravating factors that even potential evidence that the defendant had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child would not have changed the mind of a single juror.

At the Supreme Court

On Monday, without comment, the Supreme Court unanimously signaled that it wanted no part of this case. There are several procedural reasons for the justices' choice -- several technical explanations they might offer to explain why this case was not the right vehicle for them to again explore the contours of the right to counsel in capital cases. The 11th Circuit's ruling didn't create a divisive split among the lower circuit courts, for example, and Price's arguments were not so "novel and important" that they warranted Supreme Court review.

What does the Gideon case mean today? You have a right to a competent attorney -- so long as you define competency beyond reasonable recognition.

But at the core of the rejection is a series of rulings, since Gideon, which have consistently neutered both the premise and the promise of a meaningful right to counsel. In 1984, for example, in Strickland v. Washington, the justices acknowledged that the right to counsel means the right to competent counsel-- that was the good news-- but then defined competency so broadly that it has been interpreted ever since to encompass even grossly incompetent work like the work Price received from his lawyer-- that was the bad news.

Over the past 25 years, Strickland and its progeny are directly responsible for outrageous court rulings which have affirmed convictions in capital cases where trial attorneys have slept through large portions of trial, or were consistently drunk in court, or where they could not name a single Supreme Court death penalty case. Alabama successfully cited Strickland in Price's case because there are so many other instances where courts have excused similarly incompetent showings by trial attorneys during the penalty phases of capital cases.

Your Right to Counsel

Citing these cases is just cover -- a polite excuse -- these judges and justices have unfurled for justifying what really happened in Price's case. What really happened is that the courts took an obvious case of "ineffective assistance" and nullified it. You can see how increasingly tenuous became the judicial rationale as Price's claim made its way up the appellate ladder. First, at the state level, he was deemed not to have alleged enough misfeasance (ask yourself, do you think his lawyer was competent during that penalty phase?) to get a hearing.

Then, to justify the initial decision not to give him a hearing, the courts conceded misfeasance on the part of his lawyer but concluded that it was not prejudicial enough to warrant relief. This is so even though two jurors at his trial refused to vote for the death penalty despite Price's attorney's abject failure to put on a mitigating case. Then, at the federal level, the statutorily-mandated principle of judicial deference by the federal courts required the initial flawed rulings to be respected no matter what the evidence might have suggested.

What does Gideon mean today? You have the right to a competent attorney -- unless you brutally murder a minister in Alabama. You have a right to a competent attorney -- but that attorney doesn't have to prepare for the penalty phase of your capital trial or call vital witnesses on your behalf. You have a right to a competent attorney -- but that attorney can pawn off closing argument in a capital case to a recent law school graduate. You have a right to a competent attorney -- so long as you define competency beyond reasonable recognition.