In Lawhorn v. Allen, No. 04-11711 (March 11, 2008), the Court (Barkett, Wilson, Cox), affirmed a district court’s grant of habeas relief to an Alabama death row inmate, on ineffective assistance of counsel grounds.
The district court had ruled that Lawhorn was entitled to habeas relief on the ground that a confession that he gave was the product of an unlawfully long five-day detention without access to counsel. The Court pointed out, however, that the state courts had found that Lawhorn’s confession was voluntary, based on the fact that he was twice given his Miranda warning. This finding was entitled to deference.
The Court found that counsel was ineffective in waiving the giving of a closing argument during the penalty phase of the proceedings. Counsel had waived closing argument based on a misunderstanding of the rules – he thought his waiver would preclude the prosecution from making rebuttal closing. The prosecution was in fact permitted to make a rebuttal closing. The fact that counsel misunderstood the law precluded a finding that he made a sound "strategic" decision. In addition, Lawhorn was prejudiced by the failure to give a closing argument, because he had a good argument that he was a victim of "domination" by the person who made him commit the murder.