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Third Circuit Orders Habeas Relief Based on Trial Counsel’s Failure to Present or Even Investigate Mental Health and Juvenile Records in Pennsylvania Death Penalty Case

by Matt Clarke 

On July 12, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ordered that habeas relief be provisionally granted in the case of a Pennsylvania death row prisoner whose attorney failed to sufficiently investigate and present mitigation evidence regarding his abusive childhood and mental health issues. 

Seifullah Abdul-Salaam Jr. was convicted of the first-degree murder and other charges related to the killing of a Pennsylvania police officer during a botched robbery. During the one-day penalty phase of his capital murder trial, defense counsel presented three witnesses, his mother and two sisters, who somewhat vaguely testified regarding his father’s abuse of him as a child and his mental health issues. The jury unanimously voted for the death penalty. 

After exhausting state remedies, Abdul-Salaam filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. It was denied. Aided by Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, attorney Michael Wiseman and federal public defenders Ayanna Williams and David L. Zukermann, Abdul-Salaam appealed. 

The Third Circuit noted that defense counsel failed to investigate his school and juvenile records or obtain a mental health evaluation or interview additional family members regarding his childhood abuse and poverty. The Court determined that there was no reasonable strategic reason for failing to do so by trial counsel.

During six days of hearings in the state postconviction proceedings, 10 witnesses testified about Abdul-Salaam’s childhood, giving additional details about his facing near-daily physical abuse at the hands of his father. They also testified about how there was often no food or utilities in the house because the father gave all of the family’s money to the Nation of Islam. His school and juvenile records also showed his anti-social and violent behavior as attributable to abuse by his father. It was noted that, while he was in a program, his behavior was improving, but he was abruptly removed from it by his mother, who said she needed him contributing to the family income and gave the false impression that his father had permanently left the family home. 

During the hearings, medical and mental health experts testified that he suffered from ADHD, had anger and aggression issues caused by his abusive childhood, and possibly organic brain damage as well. Trial counsel Spero Lappas testified that he never sought a mental health evaluation because he felt that presenting dueling mental health experts might backfire and create “a very bad impression on the jury.” The state court found this to be a strategic decision that excused the failure to investigate mental health evidence at trial. The federal district court found that interviewing more family members was futile as their testimony would have been “cumulative.” 

The Third Circuit disagreed with both lower courts. It found that family members who testified at the hearings gave a much more vivid, complete, and detailed depiction of the daily physical abuse Abdul-Salaam faced. Although three witnesses might have been sufficient, there is no strategic reason not to interview additional witnesses in order to identify the best three to present at trial. Likewise, the Court found that, whereas there might be a strategy involved in not presenting a mental illness defense, there is no strategy for not having mental health experts evaluate a potentially mentally ill client. Strategic choices must be made after thorough investigation of the law and all the relevant facts. Thus, both of the lower courts were objectively unreasonable in their application of the deficient performance prong of the Strickland test. Because there is a reasonable probability the uninvestigated mitigation evidence would have changed at least one juror’s mind about the death penalty, Abdul-Salaam was prejudiced, the Court concluded. 

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment and remanded the case with orders to provisionally grant the writ. See: Abdul-Salaam v. Sec’y of Pa. Dep’t of Corr., 895 F.3d 243 (3d Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Abdul-Salaam v. Sec’y of Pa. Dep’t of Corr.



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