High Court Overturns Texas Death Penalty Sentence for Poor Legal Representation
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 15 that a Texas inmate should get a new death penalty punishment trial because his lawyer at trial had failed to present mitigating evidence in his favor.
The decision vacates a judgement of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and sends the case back to Texas courts “for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”
When he was 20 years old, Terence Tramaine Andrus shot and killed two Sugar Land residents during attempted carjackings while under the influence of PCP-laced marijuana. He was later convicted by a Ford Bend County jury and sentenced to death.
In an unsigned majority opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court provided background about Andrus, at length: “Death-sentenced petitioner Terence Andrus was six years old when his mother began selling drugs out of the apartment where Andrus and his four siblings lived. To fund a spiraling drug addiction, Andrus’ mother also turned to prostitution.”
“By the time Andrus was 12, his mother regularly spent entire weekends, at times weeks, away from her five children to binge on drugs.”
“When she did spend time around her children, she often was high and brought with her a revolving door of drug-addicted, sometimes physically violent, boyfriends. Before he reached adolescence, Andrus took on the role of caretaker for his four siblings.”
“When Andrus was 16, he allegedly served as a lookout while his friends robbed a woman. He was sent to a juvenile detention facility where, for 18 months, he was steeped in gang culture, dosed on high quantities of psychotropic drugs, and frequently relegated to extended stints of solitary confinement. The ordeal left an already traumatized Andrus all but suicidal. Those suicidal urges resurfaced later in Andrus’ adult life.”
The U.S. high court slammed the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for failing to consider that these circumstances were not presented at trial: “During Andrus’ capital trial, however, nearly none of this mitigating evidence reached the jury. That is because Andrus’ defense counsel not only neglected to present it; he failed even to look for it. Indeed, counsel performed virtually no investigation of the relevant evidence.”
“Those failures also fettered the defense’s capacity to contextualize or counter the State’s evidence of Andrus’ alleged incidences of past violence.”
The decision cites a longstanding court precedent, Strickland v. Washington, which established that a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel is violated by inadequate performance on the part of his lawyer. To show deficiency under Strickland, a defendant must show that “counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.”
At the guilt phase of trial, Andrus’ defense counsel declined to present an opening statement. After the prosecution rested its case, the defense immediately rested as well. During the punishment phase of the trial, Andrus’ counsel presented no opening statement. During a three-day trial, the defense counsel “cross-examined the State’s witnesses only briefly,” the U.S. Supreme Court contended in its opinion.
Three U.S. Supreme Court justices disagreed with the ruling: Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch. They wrote in a dissenting opinion taht the Texas appeals court already had considered the Strickland standard and determined that Andrus’ claims didn’t meet the standard. “Are we now a court of ‘first view’ and not, as we have often stressed, a ‘court of review’?”
They wrote, “While providing a lengthy (and one-sided) discussion of Andrus’s mitigation evidence, the Court never acknowledges the volume of evidence that Andrus is prone to brutal and senseless violence and presents a serious danger to those he encounters whether in or out of prison. Instead, the Court says as little as possible about Andrus’s violent record.”
“While awaiting trial for those murders, Andrus carried out a reign of terror in jail. He assaulted another detainee, attacked and injured corrections officers, threw urine in an officer’s face, repeatedly made explicit threats to kill officers and staff, flooded his cell and threw excrement on the walls, and engaged in other disruptive acts. Also while awaiting trial for murder, he had the words ‘murder weapon”=’ tattooed on his hands and a smoking gun tattooed on his forearm.”
The dissenting opinion concluded, “the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had before it strong aggravating evidence that Andrus wantonly killed two innocent victims and shot a third; that he committed other violent crimes; that he has a violent, dangerous, and unstable character; and that he is a threat to those he encounters.”
Originally published at https://www.honestaustin.com on June 15, 2020.