Eleventh Circuit Upholds Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim in Florida Habeas Case

In Hardwick v. Sec’y, Fla. Dep’t of Corr., No. 97-2319, 2015 WL 5474275 (11th Cir. Sept. 18, 2015) the Eleventh Circuit upheld the district court’s finding of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim under the Sixth Amendment standard set out in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The State must now either grant John Gary Hardwick, Jr., the petitioner, a new sentencing proceeding within 180 days or resentence him to life imprisonment.

In 1984, the petitioner kidnapped and killed seventeen-year-old Keith Pullum, believing Pullum had stolen his stash of quaaludes. In 1986, after a three-day trial, the petitioner was convicted of first-degree murder. At the following penalty phase of the trial, the State established the existence of five statutory aggravators, and argued that no statutory mitigating factors existed to counter the aggravating circumstances. In response, the petitioner’s attorney did not call any witnesses or present any evidence to counter this assertion, in mitigation or otherwise. The jury returned a verdict recommending a death sentence by a seven-to-five vote. In Florida, the jury is asked to weigh any aggravating factors against any mitigating factors to determine whether a death sentence is warranted, and a vote of six jurors for life constitutes a recommendation against the death penalty.

In terms of the procedural posture of the case, the petitioner filed a habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (2012), prior to the enactment of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (1960), so the Eleventh Circuit applied pre-AEDPA law. That means the court was not constrained by the “highly deferential” standard of review of state court adjudications, and reviewed the district court’s finding de novo.

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida found that not only did the petitioner’s counsel not present any mitigating evidence, they did not make a reasonable attempt at an investigation to uncover any mitigating evidence. The petitioner’s original counsel took on the case from an assistant public defender, and was provided with notes that contained the names of the petitioner’s parents and siblings, schools he had attended, contact information for a mental health evaluation where the petitioner had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, a list of his medications, and information that the petitioner had been using drugs and alcohol since the age of eleven or twelve. Counsel also had notes from interviews with family members explaining that the petitioner’s childhood was marked by neglect and physical and sexual abuse, that he had been in and out of foster homes throughout his youth, and that he had ingested a significant amount of drugs and alcohol prior to the murder.

The district court found that despite being aware of this information, the petitioner’s attorney did not conduct any further investigation or follow-up on any leads. He did not put on any evidence of the petitioner’s dysfunctional upbringing or extended history of substance abuse prior to trial, despite the existence of several family members willing to testify. The Eleventh Circuit agreed with the district court’s finding that under the prevailing professional norms at the time of the petitioner’s trial, defense attorneys in capital cases had a clear obligation to thoroughly investigate a defendant’s background. In addition, the Eleventh Circuit agreed with the district court that had the jury been presented with any of the powerful and lengthy mitigating evidence that was available, there was at least a reasonable probability that the petitioner would not have received a death sentence.

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