Friday, April 30, 2010

Death Penalty Set Aside for Roy Gene Smith

BLUF:  "Becuase there was consitutional error in the punishment phase of the applicant's trial by which he was egregiously harmed, we remand this case to the trial court for new punishment."

As the saying goes, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again."  In his second post-conviction application for writ of habeas corpus, Roy Gene Smith got the relief he was looking for.  His death sentence was set aside due to fundamental error during sentencing.  Smith claimed that he was entitled to relief from his death sentence "because he presented significant mitigating evidence related to his moral culpability and the appropriateness of a death sentence that could not be given full effect by the sentencing jury."

The United State Supreme Court has instructed that juries must be "provided a vehicle by which to fully consider and give effect to mitigating evidence of the character and record of the individual offender."  In this case, to determine whether a death sentence was appropriate, the jury was required to answer special issues of:
  • Deliberateness
  • Future dangerousness, and
  • Provocation (if raised by the evidence)
But if the defendant, such as was the case here, presented relevant mitigating evidence that was outside the scope of the special issues, the special issues were a constitutionally inadequate vehicle for the jury to fully consider and give effect to the mitigating evidence.  Furthermore, a "nullification instruction" to the jury is also insufficient to cure the consitutional inadequacy of the special issues.

What are we really talking about here?  The defendant had no real way of telling his story to the jury in a way where they could consider it in his favor in deciding whether to give him the death penalty.  Under the State's sentencing scheme, the jury was unable to adequately consider Smith's evidence of poverty, a crime-ridden neighborhood, and drug addiction. 

In setting aside the death sentence, the Court of Criminal Appeals, in a unanimous opinion, stated:
His evidence of drug addiction, poverty, and crime-ridden neighborhood was at the heart of his mitigation theory.  While we cannot say what credibility or weight the jurors might have given it, since it wne to the heart of the applicant's defensive theory, such mitigating evidence was nonetheless relevant and outside the scope of the special issues.  Therefore, the trial court was required to provide a constiutionally adequate vehicle for the jury to fully consider and give effect to it.  The trial court's failure to do so went to the very basis of the case and vitally affected the applicant's defensive theory at the punishment phase.
See the Court's full opinion HERE.