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SCOTUS Reinstates Death Sentence Reversed by Eleventh Circuit

by Matt Clarke

The Supreme Court of the United States reinstated the death sentence of an Alabama man who had been convicted of murder. The Eleventh Circuit had reversed, in part, the conviction based on the incorrect claim that Alabama had established a categorical rule requiring post-conviction habeas corpus applicants claiming ineffective assistance of counsel to call trial counsel as witnesses in habeas proceedings.

Matthew Reeves was convicted of murdering a man who stopped to assist him when his car broke down. He mocked the man’s dying spasms and bragged about the murder. He was tried for capital murder.

Before trial, Reeves’ court-appointed attorneys obtained extensive educational, mental health, and correctional records of his and sought funding to hire a neuropsychologist, Dr. John Goff, to evaluate Reeves for intellectual disability. After receiving the funding, the attorneys acquired additional mental health records, including pretrial evaluations by the State’s experts.

The overall mental health records showed that Reeves had borderline intelligence, a troubled childhood, and numerous behavioral issues. They also showed that he had been denied special services in school (and later offered them) and had attended classes and earned certificates in welding, masonry, and auto mechanics. Further, the State’s examining psychologist concluded Reeves was not intellectually disabled.

The defense attorneys abandoned hiring Dr. Goff and pursued a holistic mitigation case with testimony about his troubled childhood, neglectful family, and educational difficulties. Reeves was convicted and sentenced to death.

Following unsuccessful direct appeals, Reeves filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus, including a claim he was categorically exempt from execution due to intellectual disability and his trial attorneys should have hired Dr. Goff. During a habeas hearing, Dr. Goff testified that Reeves was intellectually disabled if the Flynn Effect was taken into consideration. The Flynn Effect is a controversial theory that IQ increases over time and must be normalized downward to achieve accurate results. The State’s expert concluded Reeves was not intellectually disabled and noted he had a leadership role in a drug-dealing group earning up to $2,000 a week.

The trial court denied relief, noting that the Flynn Effect was not settled in the psychological community and had not been accepted as scientifically valid by all courts. Further, the court noted that Reeves had failed to call any of his trial attorneys as witnesses to present evidence on why they failed to further develop intellectual disability evidence.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari. Reeves then filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which was denied. The Eleventh Circuit reversed, in part.

In reviewing the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that each court had found that Reeves was not intellectually disabled. Thus, the question then was whether his attorneys were ineffective for failing to hire Dr. Goff and use him to develop mitigation evidence.

There is a “strong presumption” that strategic decisions by defense attorneys are reasonable. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86 (2011). A defendant can overcome that presumption but not without presenting evidence of the reasoning behind the attorney’s decision. Id.

In the present case, the Court observed that although they were available, Reeves neither called his attorneys as witnesses nor presented any other evidence of their strategic decision-making.

The ineffective assistance of counsel “analysis is ‘doubly deferential’ when, as here, a state court has decided that counsel performed adequately.” Burt v. Titlow, 571 U.S. 12 (2013). Federal courts may grant habeas relief only when the state court violated “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). The Court explained that when federal judges are reviewing their peers, “a federal court may grant relief only if every ‘fairminded juris[t]’ would agree that every reasonable lawyer would have made a different decision.” Richter.

In its opinion, the Eleventh Circuit said that the state court had created a “categorical rule” that “any prisoner will always lose if he failed to call and question trial counsel regarding his or her actions and reasoning.” In doing so, the Supreme Court determined that it mischaracterized the state court opinion. Rather than creating such a rule, the Court stated that the state court engaged in lengthy analysis and decided that the failure to call the defense attorneys as witnesses or have evidence regarding the reasoning behind their actions entered into the record meant Reeves could not prevail in this case.

Further, there were many obvious reasonable justifications for the trial strategy of not hiring Dr. Goff such as the fact that other courts had found Dr. Goff’s testimony questionable and the determination by the State’s psychologist that Reeves was not intellectually disabled. Thus, the Court concluded that the state court didn’t violate clearly established federal law when it rejected Reeves’ claim that his trial attorneys should have hired Dr. Goff.

Accordingly, the Court granted the petition for a writ of certiorari, reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment, and remanded the case for proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: Dunn v. Reeves, 141 S. Ct. 2405 (2021). 

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