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Federal Appeals Court Reverses State Supreme Court on IAC Claim

Oct. 8, 2021

The sentencing phase in a criminal case is an important opportunity for an attorney to present mitigating evidence on his client’s behalf to argue for a lesser sentence. Evidence of a client’s upbringing and traumatic childhood, for example, are important mitigating factors for the court to consider in deciding an appropriate sentence. That’s what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit recently ruled in a South Carolina death penalty case where the accused’s lawyer did not present any mitigating evidence to the jury at sentencing.

Stokes v. Stirling (4th Cir. 2021)

Sammie Louis Stokes was arrested and charged with capital murder. After his was arrested, he confessed. The details of the crime were gruesome. At the sentencing phase following his conviction, his attorneys did not present any mitigating evidence. Mitigating evidence is evidence that can explain the complicated reasons behind criminal behavior. In some cases, mitigating evidence that be evidence that a defendant was abused as a child, or sexually abused by the victim, or suffers from mental illness, or has an addiction. In this case, the trial attorneys failed to present mitigating evidence before of their inexperience in preparing s mitigation defense. Jurors ultimately returned a death sentence verdict.

The 4th Circuit Court reversed the death penalty verdict because there was a significant amount of mitigating evidence that should have been present to the jury. Stokes had suffered “profound and chronic trauma” growing up, among other things, that his attorneys did not present to the jury.

Stokes sought habeas relief for his attorney’s failures. When called to task for not presenting any mitigating evidence on behalf of their client, the attorneys sought to explain away their failure by reasoning that presenting such evidence was tantamount to asking the jury to excuse Stokes’ actions.

However, the 4th Circuit found that this concern “reflects a misunderstanding of the duty to mitigate.” The Court went on to say that the attorneys “were not obliged to ask the jury to excuse Stokes’s actions. Instead, their duty was to mitigate Stokes’s “moral culpability.” This is an important distinction for defendants and defense attorney to understand. Presenting mitigating evidence is not effective if it’s offered to excuse criminal action. Mitigating evidence can be effective to explain and provide context for criminal behavior.

What This Means for You

It is possible, even in the worst of cases, for an attorney to inspire compassion for their client by presenting mitigating evidence. Such evidence does not excuse the criminal behavior, but it does explain the influences behind it as a consideration for a more lenient sentence than the maximum that can be imposed. The punishment for most crimes usually ranges from a statutory low and a statutory maximum. The punishment that a judge or jury imposes within the statutory range can be influenced by the mitigating evidence presented that an attorney presents.

It is generally true that the more serious the crime, the more important it is to present mitigating evidence.

Virginia Defense Lawyer

Presenting mitigating evidence requires investigation and strategy. You need an attorney who has experience with preparing defenses at the sentencing phase of a criminal trial. Such an attorney can make sure you get the best outcome in your case. Bryan J. Jones is committed to his clients and will develop a defense strategy tailored just for you.