Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Monday, July 21, 2014

DeBruce: Complete omission of mitigating evidence was prejudicial to Alabama death row inmate

In DeBruce v. Comm., Ala. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 11-11535 (July 15, 2014), the Court (2-1) (Tjoflat, J., dissenting) granted habeas relief to an Alabama inmate sentenced to death for a 1991 murder. The Court found that DeBruce’s trial counsel at the penalty phase of his case was constitutionally ineffective in limiting his mitigation investigation to speaking with DeBruce and his mother and not to further investigate DeBruce’s mental health and background. The Court noted that counsel did not have a strategic reason for not doing the mitigation work, and explained that he got into the case “too late” to do so. The Court noted that DeBruce’s competence to stand trial was not a basis for a strategic decision to forego pursuit of mitigation evidence at the penalty phase. Trial counsel also failed to pursue the inconsistencies between DeBruce’s mother’s account of his being a successful student and information that he had in fact dropped out of school in the seventh grade. The Court found that the failure to investigate prejudiced DeBruce, because the sentencing jury heard nothing of the daily beatings DeBruce suffered at the hands of his older sister, his resistance to joining gangs despite their assaults and intimidation, the pervasive violence in his neighborhood, or his struggles in school and his low-average intelligence. The “complete omission” of this type of evidence was prejudicial.