The case of death sentence of Jeffery Landrigan

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No one questions Landrigan's guilt. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the Supreme Court's conservative majority, laid out the facts. In 1989, Landrigan murdered Chester Dean Dyer in Arizona while Landrigan was committing a burglary. Earlier Landrigan had escaped from prison in Oklahoma. He had been imprisoned there for a different murder. While in prison he repeatedly stabbed another inmate. His victim was "just a guy I got into an argument with. I stabbed him 14 times. It was lucky he lived."

After the jury had returned its verdict in the Arizona case, Landrigan's court-appointed counsel tried to forestall a death sentence by presenting testimony from the defendant's mother and ex-wife. Landrigan would have none of it. When counsel tried to cite the defendant's favorable work record, he interrupted to say that he supported his family by "doing robberies." Counsel attempted to justify the earlier murder in Oklahoma as self-defense; again Landrigan broke into explain that "he didn't grab me. I stabbed him."

The trial judge ended the pre-sentencing hearing by agreeing with defense counsel on this mitigating factor: The defendant's mother loved him. Moreover, the murder was not premeditated. Otherwise, a death sentence was abundantly justified: The defendant is "a person who has no scruples and no regard for human life and human beings."

After Landrigan was convicted in 1990, court-appointed counsel immediately began a series of appeals through state and federal courts. An affirming panel of the ninth Circuit summarized the case: "Before he was 30 years of age, Landrigan had murdered one man, repeatedly stabbed another one, escaped from prison, and within two months murdered still another man."

Last year the full ninth U.S. Circuit finally ruled in Landrigan's favor: The death sentence, the court ruled, was the fault of defense counsel who had "done little to prepare for the sentencing aspect of the case." If the defendant's lawyers had done a proper job, said the appellate court, there would have been "a wealth of mitigating evidence, including the family's history of drug and alcohol abuses and propensity for violence."

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the four dissenters in the Supreme Court, laid heavy blame upon Landrigan's counsel: "Significant mitigating evidence — evidence that may well have explained Landrigan's criminal conduct and unruly behavior at his capital sentencing hearing — was unknown at the time of sentencing. Only years later did Landrigan learn that he suffers from a serious psychological condition that sheds important light on his earlier actions."

Stevens continued: For example, "counsel did not complete a psychological evaluation of Landrigan, which we now know would have uncovered a serious organic brain disorder. He failed to consult an expert to explore the effects of respondent's birth mother's drinking and drug use during pregnancy. And he never developed a history of Landrigan's troubled childhood with his adoptive family — a childhood marked by physical and emotional abuse, neglect by his adoptive parents, his own substance abuse problems (including an overdose in his eighth or ninth grade classroom), a stunted education, and recurrent placement in substance abuse rehabilitation facilities, a psychiatric ward, and police custody.

"Counsel's failure to develop this background evidence was so glaring that even the sentencing judge noted that she had 'received very little information concerning the defendant's difficult family history. ...' By any measure, and especially for a capital case, this meager investigation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness."

The case now goes back to the ninth Circuit, which presumably will obey the Supreme Court's ruling that the trial court in Arizona had not abused its discretion. The mitigating evidence that Landrigan sought belatedly to introduce, said Justice Thomas, "would not have changed the result."

Justice Kilpatrick, meaning me, finally concurs in Justice Thomas' opinion for the majority. It's not an easy call. In this particular case, there is no question of the defendant's guilt. As I read the record, Landrigan was adequately represented by counsel. There is persuasive testimony (though not entirely convincing testimony) that it ultimately will cost far more to execute Landrigan than to imprison him for life, but a cost/benefit ratio is irrelevant. Landrigan wantonly, cruelly, unforgivably took the life of another man. Pray for his soul, and pull the switch.

(Letters to Mr. Kilpatrick should be sent by e-mail to kilpatjj@aol.com.)


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