Thursday, September 17, 2009

Florida Supreme Court Vacates Death Sentence For Failure To Present Evidence Of Mental Capacity

In Hurst v. State (07-1798), released today by the Florida Supreme Court, the Court vacated the defendant's death sentence and remanded for a new penalty phase proceeding.  The seventy-five page opinion rejects all but one of the defendant's arguments.  The defendant, "who was nineteen at the time of the murder, was convicted of the May 2, 1998, first-degree murder of Cynthia Harrison in Escambia County. His conviction and sentence of death were affirmed on direct appeal in Hurst v. State, 819 So. 2d 689 (Fla.), cert. denied 537 U.S. 977 (2002)."   Here, the defendant:
 appeals from an order denying his motion filed under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.851 seeking to vacate his judgment of conviction of first-degree murder and sentence of death...Hurst has raised several guilt phase postconviction claims and one penalty phase claim. He also contends that the cumulative effect of errors in the guilt and penalty phases deprived him of a fair trial. We turn first to the guilt phase claims.
All of the arguments were rejected with one exception:
Hurst contends that trial counsel failed to adequately investigate and present mental mitigation evidence of his low IQ, borderline intellectual functioning, and possible organic brain damage caused by fetal alcohol syndrome, all of which would have established statutory and nonstatutory mitigation and could have provided the jury with a basis to recommend life
The Court concluded:
We reiterate the principle that not every capital defendant requires a mental evaluation, but where, as here, available information indicates that the defendant could have significant mental health problems, counsel will be deficient in failing to investigate the defendant‘s mental condition for purposes of mitigation. Because there was no reasonable, strategic reason not to present any mental mitigation during the penalty phase of Hurst‘s trial, and a reasonable investigation would have disclosed statutory and nonstatutory mitigation that could have shored up the otherwise weak mitigation, counsel was deficient in his performance under the first prong of Strickland.
As the postconviction court found, after hearing the mental health experts‘ testimony at the evidentiary hearing, both statutory and nonstatutory mitigation is available for consideration that was not available during the penalty phase of Hurst‘s trial. There appears to be no countervailing "double-edged" sword to presentation of this mitigation—it did not indicate antisocial personality disorder or another unfavorable psychiatric condition and was not inconsistent with Hurst's "not guilty" posture. Because this mitigation was not made available for the jury or the trial judge to consider before the death sentence was imposed, our confidence in the imposition of the death penalty in this case is undermined. Accordingly, we must vacate the death sentence in this case and remand for a new penalty phase proceeding.


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