Sears v. Upton is, bar none, the most interesting per curiam decision that I've ever read. That is thanks to Associate Justice Scalia's contumaciously stubborn streak!
The long title of the case is Demarcus Ali Sears v. Stephen Upton, Warden [of Georgia's Jackson State Prison]. Mr. Sears is on Death Row for "kidnapping with bodily injury. He is not on Death Row for having murdered anyone.
He was convicted in 1993 of violating Ga. Code Ann. §16–5–40(d)(4) (2006). Sears and an accomplice kidnapped a woman in Georgia. She was killed in Kentucky. The fact of the lady's demise in Kentucky is a statutory aggravating circumstance, under Georgia law, warranting the imposition of a capital sentence. This follows a theory of felony murder.
Felony murder does not require the criminal defendant commit the fatal act, he need only be a perpetrator in a crime where a person died as a direct and proximate result of the underlying crime. He doesn't need to pull the trigger. For instance consider a store being robbed and a police officer becomes involved in a shootout with the criminals. The store clerk is killed by the officer's bullet. The robbers are guilty of Felony Murder. This is Black Letter Law and Demarcus Ali Sears is wrong thinking that the law is unfair.
That last sentence really goes to the heart of the case. The problem with the sentencing is the problem with Sears' cognitive function. More on that later.
Sears launched a categorical Eighth Amendment challenge to his conviction under the kidnapping theory, which the Court declined to address. The Court footnoted that any jurisdictional challenge for Georgia imposing the Death Sentence which occurred in Kentucky was not before them.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
During the penalty phase of Sears' capital trial, the mitigation phase, the defense presented evidence that this crime was out of character for Sears who had been reared in a loving middle-class home. Several witnesses testified that an imposition of the Death Sentence would adversely affect them.
Anyone who watches crime drama knows that this wasn't a good idea. A 59 year old woman, wife, mother, grandmother, named Gloria Ann Wilbur, was raped and murdered. The convicted defendant's evidence is that his family and friends will be burdened by his execution. That dog don't hunt.
The State turned that argument on the defendant, boy howdy! Here's what they did:
With Sears, the prosecutor told the jury, “[w]e don’t have a deprived child from an inner city; a person who[m] society has turned its back on at an early age. But, yet, we have a person, privileged in every way, who has rejected every opportunity that was afforded him.”
Mitigation means to lessen the severe impact of the offense, to partly excuse the crime. It does not mean anything like absolution, which would wash the crime away. Mitigation, that's a noun. Mitigate is a transitive verb. Did Sears' attorney at trial investigate his client? If you don't investigate your client how can you determine the best strategy to pursue in the mitigation, or conversely the worst?
The Trial Court which oversaw Sears' postconviction relief ruled that Sears had made a mitigation defense. That court demonstrated that Sears' mitigation defense was Constitutionally inadequate.
So what did the Court say in Strickland v. Washington? Well, that was a case from 1984 where the Supreme Court reversed a Death Penalty case from Florida on Sixth Amendment Grounds."After finding constitutionally deficient attorney performance under the framework we set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668 (1984), the state post conviction court found itself unable to assess whether counsel’s inadequate investigation might have prejudiced Sears... Because Sears’ counsel did present some mitigation evidence during Sears’ penalty phase—but not the significant mitigation evidence a Constitutionally adequate investigation would have uncovered—the state court determined it could not speculate as to what the effect of additional evidence would have been."
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
9 Channeling powers of telepathy, JUSTICE SCALIA asserts that what the trial court actually decided in this case is that “Sears’ trial counsel presented a reasonable mitigation theory and offered evidence sufficient to support it, so the prejudice inquiry was more difficult—so difficult that Sears could not make the requisite showing.” Post, at 4. Such a highly favorable reading of the trial court’s analysis would be far more convincing had the trial court engaged with the evidence as JUSTICE SCALIA does. But it offered no such analysis in its opinion; indeed, it appears the court did not even conduct any real analysis, explaining that it was “impossible to know what effect” the evidence might have had on the jury.
The Court notices that Associate Justice Scalia chides them in his dissent. Associate Justice Scalia's rancor stems from the per curiam opinion's conclusion that the Trial Court made assumptions rather than judicial findings. The majority rebuffs that saying:
"But our point is that any finding with respect to the reasonableness of the mitigation theory counsel utilized—in this case, family impact—is in tension with the trial court’s unambiguous finding that counsel’s investigation was itself so unreasonable as to be facially unconstitutional. This point is plain in Williams: We rejected any suggestion that a decision to focus on one potentially reasonable trial strategy—in that case, petitioner’s voluntary confession—was “justified by a tactical decision” when “counsel did not fulfill their obligation to conduct a thorough investigation of the defendant’s background.” 529 U. S., at 396. A “tactical decision” is a precursor to concluding that counsel has developed a “reasonable” mitigation theory in a particular case. [emphasis added]"