SCOTUS Finds Death Penalty Counsel Ineffective for Failing to Put on Post Traumatic Stress Evidence in Mitigation Hearing

The Supreme Court found that a criminal defense attorney was ineffective in failing to use evidence of “post-traumatic stress disorder.” In a summary order the Court  overturned the death sentence of a Florida veteran whose “combat service unfortunately left him a traumatized, changed man,” as the Court put it in Porter v. McCollum, Supreme Court No. 08-10537, involving Korean war veteran George Porter, Jr. 

The Court stated:

“Our Nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did,” the opinion said.  “The relevance of Porter’s extensive combat experience is not only that he served honorably under extreme hardship and gruesome conditions, but also that the jury might find mitigating the intense stress and mental and emotional toll that combat took on Porter.”

In its order, the Court said Porter was entitled to prevail on his habeas claim that his defense lawyer at trial had provided ineffective legal assistance.  “The Florida Supreme Court’s decision that Porter was not prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to conduct a thorough — or even cursory — investigation is unreasonable.”

Quoting the dissenting judges on the state court, the Supreme Court opinion remarked that ” ‘there exists too much mitigating evidence that was not presented to now be ignored.’ ” This opinion has to be contrasted with the Court’s summary order last month in the
VanHook case (reported on this blog here and here) where the Court found that the Defendant was not deprived the right to effective assistance of counsel where counsel failed to put on a mitigation defense.