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In a first test for court watchers, Sotomayor upholds death sentence

Justice Sonia Sotomayor's ruling pleased conservatives.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor's ruling pleased conservatives. (J. Scott Applewhite - AP)
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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the death penalty for an Alabama inmate whose attorney declined to present evidence about the man's mental deficiencies to a jury deciding his fate.

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The 7 to 2 ruling was notable because it was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, her first full opinion on capital punishment since she joined the court. She said that while the wisdom of the lawyer's decision might be "debatable," it was not unreasonable to think he had made a strategic decision that kept out more damaging evidence about his client.

The ruling came as the court indicated that a long-awaited decision in another case might be at hand. The justices took the unusual step of adding a session Thursday to issue opinions, prompting speculation that it might be ready to announce its much-anticipated ruling about the role of corporate spending in election campaigns.

The court never says in advance what it will announce, but the political world has been awaiting the court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The case, first argued last spring, was reargued in September to consider whether it is unconstitutional for Congress to forbid corporations and labor unions to use their treasuries to bankroll ads for and against candidates.

Those who advocate greater government control over campaign contributions say a court decision in the affirmative would revolutionize the way political campaigns are funded. Corporations and labor unions now are required to fund their political activities through money raised by their political action committees.

The death penalty case came in a challenge from Holly Wood, who killed his former girlfriend Ruby Lois Gosha with a shotgun while she was sleeping in her Troy, Ala., home in 1993.

Wood challenged his death sentence on several grounds, including the decision by his inexperienced attorney not to pursue and introduce to the jury a psychologist's report about Wood's diminished mental capacity. Such evidence could be seen as mitigating when considering whether Wood deserved death for his actions.

The Alabama Supreme Court upheld Wood's sentence, but a federal judge agreed with Wood that the lawyer's performance was incompetent. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed that decision.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said the appeals court was right. "Even if it is debatable, it is not unreasonable to conclude that . . . counsel made a strategic decision not to inquire further into the information contained in the report about Wood's mental deficiencies and not to present to the jury such information," Sotomayor wrote.

She noted that the report contained information about Wood trying to kill another ex-girlfriend in much the same manner.

She was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Stephen G. Breyer.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Anthony M. Kennedy dissented, saying the lawyer's decision was best attributed to "inattention and neglect."

Sotomayor's extensive record as a judge is scant on capital punishment. The pro-death-penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation said it was encouraged by Sotomayor's decision to uphold the appeals court ruling.

The case is Wood v. Allen.


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