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Fourth Circuit: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel in Death Penalty Case for Failure to Investigate Fetal Alcohol Syndrome as Mitigating Factor During Sentencing Phase

by Chad Marks

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s finding that counsel in a capital case was ineffective for their failure to investigate potentially mitigating evidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (“FAS”) during the sentencing phase.

Charles Christopher Williams was convicted by a South Carolina jury of kidnapping, murder, and possession of a firearm during a violent crime related to the murder of his ex-girlfriend.

During the sentencing phase, trial counsel uncovered evidence that Williams’ mother consumed alcohol while pregnant with him. At the time, the 2003 American Bar Association Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases cited FAS as a possible mitigating factor. Trial counsel later acknowledged that they were sufficiently aware of FAS and that information uncovered during the sentencing phase investigation should have triggered an inquiry into a possible FAS diagnosis for Williams. Nevertheless, counsel never followed up on the FAS lead.

The jury later returned a sentence of death following the penalty phase of the proceedings.

Williams filed a post-conviction relief motion in November 2010 in a Greenville County, South Carolina, court arguing that trial counsel’s failure to investigate signs that Williams suffered from FAS amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment. The court after a hearing that included extensive testimony denied relief. After the denial, Williams sought review by the South Carolina Supreme Court. That court denied the petition for writ of certiorari as did the U.S. Supreme Court.

In November 2016, Williams filed a § 2254 habeas corpus motion in federal district court, which he amended in 2017. Williams reiterated his argument that counsel were ineffective under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution due to their failure to investigate potentially mitigating evidence of FAS. The district court agreed with that argument, vacated the death sentence, and suggested a resentencing trial. The State appealed.

The Fourth Circuit in 2003, eighteen months before sentencing in Williams’ case, recognized that FAS could be a mitigating a factor in a capital case. Byram v. Ozmint, 339 F.3d 203, (4th Cir. 2003). The evidence adduced during the hearing demonstrated that trial counsel could not recall a mitigation investigation into FAS or why such an investigation was not conducted. Doctors testified at that hearing that Williams was diagnosed with some forms of FAS.

In deciding to affirm the district courts’ decision, the Fourth Circuit relied in part on the SCOTUS decision in Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510 (2003), which makes abundantly clear an inadequate investigation into potentially mitigating evidence can be by itself sufficient to establish deficient performance under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Here, it was counsel’s failure to investigate the issues surrounding FAS that prevented counsel from making an informed decision as to whether or not to present evidence of FAS during the penalty phase, triggering the first prong of Strickland-deficient performance.

As to Strickland’s second prong — prejudice — the Court concluded that “had the FAS evidence been presented, there was a reasonable probability that, given the balance of aggravating and mitigating factors, the jury would have returned a different sentence.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s ruling that Williams was denied effective assistance of counsel. See Williams v. Stirling, 914 F.3d 302 (4th Cir. 2019).

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