Release Date:  May 14, 2007
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Ninth Circuit ruling in Schriro v. Landrigan overturned

In a 5 to 4 decision announced today, the United States Supreme Court has reinstated the death sentence of Jeffrey Landrigan for the murder of a Phoenix man.  The Court’s decision in Schriro v. Landrigan overturns a 2006 Ninth Circuit ruling which had held that the defendant’s attorney failed to present mitigating evidence at the sentencing hearing. 

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation joined Arizona’s appeal of that ruling to argue that the Ninth Circuit had violated federal rules when it substituted its judgment for a reasonable decision by the state court which found that Landrigan had directed his attorney not to present mitigating evidence.

Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas stated, “Even assuming the truth of all the facts Landrigan sought to prove at the evidentiary hearing, he still could not be granted federal habeas relief because the state courts’ factual determination that Landrigan would not have allowed counsel to present any mitigating evidence at sentencing is not an unreasonable determination of the facts . . . and the mitigating evidence he seeks to introduce would not have changed the result.”

“This decision corrects a ruling which disregarded the limits Congress has placed on the lower federal courts and restored the only appropriate sentence for this repeat murderer,” said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.

The facts in this case and Landrigan’s criminal history show him to be a brutal and remorseless murderer.  In 1982, Landrigan stabbed his “best friend” to death in an Oklahoma trailer park.  Following his conviction for murder, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.  In 1986, he attacked a fellow prison inmate, stabbing him 14 times with a homemade knife.  Following that conviction for attempted murder, his sentence was increased.  In November 1989, Landrigan escaped from prison and made his way to Phoenix, Arizona, where, three weeks later, he befriended a homosexual man and accompanied him to his apartment to “party.”  At the apartment, he had a few beers with the man, then stabbed and strangled him to death.  Before leaving, Landrigan ransacked his victim’s apartment and stole his paycheck.

At the time of his arrest, Landrigan denied knowing the victim or visiting his apartment, although he was wearing the dead man’s shirt during questioning.

At the trial, the prosecutor introduced the testimony of witnesses who placed Landrigan in the victim’s apartment at the time of the murder, several of his fingerprints at the murder scene, the victim’s blood on his shoes, an imprint at the scene matching his shoes, and the testimony of his ex-girlfriend relating a telephone conversation after the murder where he said he had “killed a guy.”

Following his conviction for first-degree murder, a separate hearing was held to determine if he should be sentenced to death or life in prison.  At that hearing, the prosecutor introduced Landrigan’s prior record of violent felonies and the fact that the most recent murder was in conjunction with a robbery, both of which qualified him for a death sentence.  The defense attorney presented the court with a memorandum describing the evidence in mitigation, including Landrigan’s history of drug abuse, but when he tried to call members of Landrigan’s family to testify, the murderer refused to allow it.  When the attorney attempted to explain his previous crimes in a more favorable light, Landrigan interrupted him.  With regard to the 1982 murder, Landrigan told the Court that his lawyer got it wrong.  “When we left the trailer, Greg (the victim) went out of the trailer first.  My wife was between us.  I pulled my knife out, then I was the one who pushed her aside and jumped him and stabbed him.  He didn’t grab me.  I stabbed him.”

Describing the prison assault, Landrigan told the Court, “It was a guy I got in an argument with.  I stabbed him 14 times.  It was lucky he lived.  But two weeks later they found him hung in his cell.”  Finally, in response to the judge asking Landrigan if he had anything to say on his behalf, he said “Yeah.  I’d like to point out a few things about how I feel about the way this sh- -, this whole scenario went down.  I think that it’s pretty f- - -ing ridiculous to let a fagot be the one to determine my fate, about how they come across in his defense, about I was supposedly f- - -ing this dude.  This never happened.  I think the whole thing stinks.  I think if you want to give me the death penalty, just bring it right on.  I’m ready for it.”

The Arizona Supreme Court later upheld the conviction and sentence on direct appeal.  On state habeas corpus, Landrigan claimed that his attorney was incompetent because he had not introduced mitigating evidence at the sentencing hearing, and suggested that if the attorney had discussed the theory that he was biologically compelled to kill people, he would have allowed it to be presented.

This claim was heard by the original trial judge.  She rejected it, pointing out that Landrigan had expressly prohibited his attorney from introducing any mitigating evidence.  The Arizona Supreme Court denied the appeal of that holding.  In 1997, Landrigan filed a federal habeas corpus petition, again claiming that his defense attorney had been incompetent.  The federal District Court rejected the claim as did a unanimous panel of the Ninth Circuit.  In 2006, a larger panel of the same court overturned the lower courts, announcing that they had taken Landrigan’s statements, refusing to allow mitigating evidence, “out of context.”

When the Supreme Court agreed to hear the state’s appeal of that ruling, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation joined the case.  In an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, the Foundation argued that the Ninth Circuit ruling, setting aside the state court’s finding that Landrigan prohibited his attorney from presenting mitigating evidence, is contrary to precedent and federal law.

“The state court’s holding that defendant’s own statements in the court record disprove his later claim was clearly reasonable,” said  Scheidegger.  “The theory advanced by the Ninth Circuit to uphold the claim was remarkable for its disrespect for both the rules and for justice in this case,”  he added.

The Foundation’s brief in this case is available at: