Release Date:  November 2, 2009
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Oral argument is scheduled for Wednesday, November 4

The United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument Wednesday regarding an Alabama murderer’s claim that his three state-appointed lawyers failed to adequately represent him during his sentencing hearing. The defendant in the case of Wood v. Allen is seeking a decision overturning his death sentence because, he claims, the defense attorneys did not thoroughly investigate and produce evidence of Wood’s borderline range of intellectual functioning.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has joined the case to oppose the defendant’s claim.  “This case presents an opportunity to scale back the ability of patently guilty capital defendants to claim ineffective assistance of counsel for virtually anything the defense attorney did or did not do during sentencing that might have influenced the jury,” said CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.  “The current lack of clear guidelines invites second-guessing by federal judges which always delays and often denies justice,” he added.

The defendant, Holly Wood, was convicted on strong evidence of the shotgun murder of his girlfriend in September of 1993.  At the time of the murder, Wood was on parole after serving five years of a fifteen-year prison sentence for shooting another former girlfriend in 1985.

Evidence introduced at his murder trial indicates that shortly after his release on parole, Wood moved in with Ruby Gosha, his new girlfriend and the mother of this child.  Within three months,  the relationship had soured and, when Wood learned that Gosha was dating another man, he attacked her with a knife.  While Gosha managed to escape, she lost the use of two fingers when her wrist was slit during the attack.

The following month, Wood and a cousin went to Gosha’s house.  When her mother answered the door and demanded that he leave, Wood told Ruby, “I will get you some day.”

Later that night, Wood snuck into the Gosha home, placed a shotgun to the head of a sleeping Ruby Gosha, and pulled the trigger.  As his cousin drove Wood away from the murder scene, Wood threw the shotgun shells out the window and later buried the gun behind his father’s house.  During the getaway he told his cousin he had “blowed her (Gosha’s) brains out, and all she did was wiggle.”

For his trial, Wood was represented by three attorneys.  The lead attorney was a former Assistant Attorney General and Deputy District Attorney who, in private practice, had represented “probably a thousand criminal defendants,” including three-death penalty cases.  The second attorney had represented defendants in over 50 felony trials over his 30-year career.  The third attorney was a recent law school graduate assisting in his first jury trial.

Faced with overwhelming evidence of guilt, the defense team sought a psychiatric evaluation of Wood seeking possible mitigating evidence.  The evaluation revealed that Wood had a low IQ, but that he suffered no mental impairment that prevented him from understanding that his criminal behavior was wrong,  and he had a “normal thought process.”  Wood also told the doctor that he had trouble controlling his anger and had wanted to injure others in the past.  Recognizing that the evaluation and Wood’s own statements about being prone to violent behavior might harm their defense, his lead attorney asked the court to suppress it and all other psychiatric and psychological evidence from the trial or sentencing hearing.

Following Wood’s conviction for capital murder, his defense counsel presented testimony and other evidence to discourage a death sentence at the penalty hearing.  This included evidence of his difficult childhood, his mother’s death when he was 10, and his only brother’s death the next year.  In spite of this, the jury recommended a death sentence.

After his conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal, Wood challenged his sentence on state postconviction review.  Three separate evidentiary hearings were held between 2000 and 2003 to consider Wood’s claim that he was mentally retarded and that his defense counsel failed to adequately represent him at the penalty hearing.  The conclusion of this review was that neither claim was supported by the evidence.  On federal habeas corpus, the district court agreed that Wood was not retarded but announced that his defense counsel was ineffective for failing to further investigate and introduce evidence of his intellectual functioning.  On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this holding.

When the Supreme Court agreed to review Wood’s appeal of that ruling, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys joined his appointed attorney to encourage a decision to overturn his death sentence.  The defense and its supporters claim that Wood’s defense counsel failed to thoroughly investigate his mental condition and that the least experienced attorney in Wood’s legal team had chosen not to present the evidence of his low IQ to the sentencing jury.

At the invitation of the Solicitor General of Alabama, CJLF has joined the case to introduce a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief.  The Foundation argues that Wood’s claims and all the related evidence were properly reviewed by the Alabama courts and that federal law requires that the state court decision stand unless it is unreasonable.  A federal court’s simple disagreement on a debatable point is not sufficient to overturn a final judgment.  The Eleventh Circuit decision correctly concluded that the state court decision is well within the bounds of reasonableness.

The CJLF brief also asks the Court to consider paring back earlier rulings, which have created an environment where the failure to present any detail of a murderer’s life at the penalty hearing can support the claim that the defense lawyer was incompetent.  The earlier rulings include Rompilla v. Beard, a 2005 case in which five Justices voted to reverse a decision written by Justice Alito when he was on the Court of Appeals, but four Justices voted to affirm that decision.