Release Date:  October 19, 2020
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Eighth Circuit ruling in Deck v. Jennings announced today

In a unanimous decision announced today, a panel of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit rejected a Missouri double murderer’s claim that the length of time taken to review multiple appeals of his death sentence violated his constitutional right to due process and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

The case involves the conviction of Carman Deck for the burglary, robbery, and murder of an elderly couple in 1996. During the 12 years following his 1998 conviction and sentence, Deck won two appellate court rulings granting him new sentencing trials. At each new trial, a new jury recommended the death sentence. Finally in 2017, Deck won a federal district court ruling announcing that the years spent on his sentencing challenges violated his constitutional rights and that the attorney for his third resentencing was incompetent. The appeals court overturned that ruling, reinstating Deck’s death sentence.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation had joined the case of Deck v. Jennings on behalf of the family of the murdered couple to encourage a decision overturning the district court ruling.

In its decision today, the court held that “Deck cannot identify any ‘controlling authority’ from either the Supreme Court of the United States or the Supreme Court of Missouri that had recognized a Due Process claim under these or similar circumstances.” With regard to the challenge to the competence of Deck’s lawyer, the court noted that because his due process claim was not supported by precedent, “ ‘competent’ performance does not require counsel to ‘recognize and raise every conceivable constitutional claim.’ ”

Evidence introduced at trial indicates that Carman Deck and his sister went to the home of Zelma and James Long in the small town of DeSoto, Missouri, on a summer evening in 1996. After waiting for nightfall, Deck and his sister knocked on the door of the Longs’ home, and when Mrs. Long answered, they asked for directions. Mrs. Long invited them in, and she and Mr. Long assisted them with directions. When Deck moved toward the door to leave, he drew a pistol, pointed it at the Longs, and ordered them to lie face down on their bed. The Longs did so, offering up money and valuables throughout the house and all the while begging that he not harm them. After Deck finished robbing their house, he stood at the edge of their bed, deliberating for 10 minutes over whether to spare them. He ignored their pleas and shot them each twice in the head. Deck later told police that he shot the Longs because he thought that they would be able to recognize him.

After a third jury sentenced Deck to death in 2008, he petitioned the federal district court on habeas corpus to review his 32 claims of trial, sentencing, and defense counsel errors. The court dismissed 30 of those claims, but upheld the claim that Deck’s rights were violated by resentencing him so long after the crime and also found the defense attorney for his third sentencing trial incompetent for not raising that claim.

On behalf of the victims’ family, CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton submitted a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, arguing that the delay claim was a novel one, not supported by existing precedent. The Supreme Court has held that lawyers are not required to make every conceivable argument, and passing on a novel claim is not incompetence.

“For over 20 years, Deck has taken full advantage of all available appeals and post-conviction remedies to deliberately prolong the imposition of his own death sentence. If the lower court ruling had been upheld, it would have amounted to a fundamental miscarriage of justice to the Long family,” said Stapleton. “This cold-blooded convicted killer richly deserves the sentence that three separate juries have given him. Fortunately the illegal ruling sparing him did not stand,” she added.

CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.