Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Monday, November 09, 2009

Hammond: Death penalty affirmed for Georgia inmate

In Hammond v. Hall, No. 08-11109 (Nov. 4, 2009) (Carnes, Marcus, Pryor), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Georgia inmate sentenced to death for a 1988 murder.

The Court rejected Hammond’s Brady claim that the State suppressed its suspicions that the female accomplice who testified for the State against Hammond at trial had been his accomplice in prior assaults. The Court noted that this was not a record of prior convictions, nor “evidence.”

The Court also rejected Hammond’s request to have a shotgun tested in order to show that it was not the murder weapon. The Court noted that this request comes “years too late.”

The Court noted that an audiotape of witness testimony was suppressed, and that this audiotape might have shown that the witnesses disagreed about who had removed jewelry from the murder victim. But this discrepancy merely involved a “detail” in the evidence.

The Court also rejected the claim that the State failed to disclose the full scope of immunity of Hammond’s girlfriend, who was an accomplice in the charged murder and other Hammond crimes. The Court recognized that the failure to disclose a witness’ immunity requires a new trial if the witness is the State’s lead witness. But here there was other evidence against Hammond, and the jury knew at least of the witness immunity for the murder charge at issue.

Looking at the suppressed evidence as a whole, the Court concluded that “against the mountain of inculpatory evidence,” its confidence in the verdict was not undermined.

The Court rejected an ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on trial counsel’s failure to seek a mistrial during the sentencing phase of trial, when the prosecutor improperly warned the jury that if it did not sentence Hammond to death, he would someday be a free man. Under Georgia law, this improper argument triggers a right to a mistrial, but trial counsel instead accepted the trial court’s curative instruction. The Court deferred to the ruling of the Georgia courts that any ineffectiveness did not result in prejudice to Hammond, because of the aggravating circumstances and the trial court’s curative instruction. The Court found inadequate support in Supreme Court caselaw for defendant’s argument that the failure to obtain a mistrial is, of itself, prejudice. Further, the Georgia mistrial statute did not embody a constitutional right to not have the jury be aware of the possibility of parole if a death sentence is not imposed. Finally, the Court noted that the Georgia statute, by concealing truthful information about the defendant’s parole eligibility, does not make the sentencing process more fair or reliable.