SCOTUS in giving mood; grants another capital habeas

SCOTUS today granted Rompilla v. Beard [majority opinion] by a 5-4 vote, holding that that even when a capital defendant’s family members and the defendant
himself have suggested that no mitigating evidence is available,
defendant’s counsel is still bound to make reasonable efforts to obtain
and review material that counsel knows the prosecution will probably
rely on as evidence of aggravation at the sentencing phase of trial. The Court granted the petition finding both prongs of Strickland had been met. Writing for the majority, Justice Souter explains:

Counsel knew that the Commonwealth intended to seek the death penalty by proving
Rompilla had a significant history of felony convictions
indicating the use or threat of violence, an aggravator under state law.   

Counsel further knew that the Commonwealth would attempt to establish this history by proving RompillaÂ’s prior conviction for rape and assault, and would emphasize his violent character by introducing
a transcript of the rape victimÂ’s testimony given in that earlier trial. There is no question that
defense counsel were on notice, since they acknowledge
that a “plea letter,” written by one of them four days prior
to trial, mentioned the prosecutorÂ’s plans.

It is also
undisputed that the prior conviction file was a public document, readily available for the asking at the very courthouse where Rompilla was to be tried. It is clear, however, that defense counsel did not look at
any part of that file, including the transcript, until warned by the prosecution a second time.

On the performance prong, the Court concludes:

Without making
reasonable efforts to review the file, defense counsel could
have had no hope of knowing whether the prosecution was
quoting selectively from the transcript, or whether there
were circumstances extenuating the behavior described by
the victim. The obligation to get the file was particularly
pressing  here owing to the similarity of the violent prior
offense to the crime charged and Rompillas sentencing
strategy stressing residual doubt.  Without making efforts
to learn the details and rebut the relevance of the earlier
crime, a convincing argument for residual doubt was certainly beyond any hope.

The prejudice prong wasn’t seriously contested by the State of PA and the Habeas was granted. SCOTUSblog has detailed analysis and commentary. An AP story here.