Supreme Court weighs lawyers' actions in 2 death row cases
WASHINGTON (AP) — Seven years before Thomas Sims defended Sammie Stokes in a South Carolina death-penalty trial, he had prosecuted Stokes for assaulting his ex-wife.
The trial record shows Sims never told the judge in the murder case about that earlier prosecution, not even when the ex-wife took the stand against his client to recount the assault.
Stokes' case is one of two the Supreme Court is weighing in which death-row inmates are raising questions about the actions of their lawyers. In the other, James Tyler of Louisiana pleaded not guilty to the murder charge against him, but his lawyer conceded Tyler's guilt and did nothing to poke holes in eyewitness accounts that helped convict Tyler. The justices have yet to decide whether to hear either case, but word could come Monday.
The high court has taken up many cases that involve the Constitution's guarantee of a competent lawyer to a criminal defendant, but these cases pose different issues for the justices.
In the one from Louisiana, the question is whether Tyler's rights were violated when the lawyer overrode his objections and put up no defense to the charge against him, choosing instead to focus on trying to avoid a death sentence. In the South Carolina case, the issue is whether Sims had a conflict of interest that prevented him from effectively representing his client.
Sims never told the judge in Stokes' murder trial in 1999 of his prior involvement in prosecuting Stokes, or that the earlier case relied in large part on the testimony of Stokes' ex-wife, Audrey Smith, according to Stokes' current lawyers.
When prosecutors called Smith to testify in the sentencing phase of the trial, Sims pulled his punches, the lawyers wrote in their Supreme Court filing.
"Faced with the witness whose cause and credibility he previously championed, Sims ignored multiple significant exaggerations and inconsistencies in Smith's testimony," they wrote.
Keir Weyble, Stokes' lead lawyer, pointed to a high court ruling from June in which the court said a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice should have stepped aside from a case in which he had personally approved the prosecution 30 years earlier. "The core principle is the same," Weyble said.
Sims, in private practice in Orangeburg, South Carolina, rejected the idea that he did anything wrong.
"It's easy to sit 16 years later and say what someone didn't do 16 years before. I fought for Sammie and I wanted him to live out his life," Sims said.
Sims said he and Stokes discussed the matter and that Stokes said he wanted Sims to remain as his lawyer.
In Tyler's case, there was no genetic evidence implicating Tyler found at the scene of the crime or on his clothing. Police never recovered the gun used to kill an employee of a Pizza Hut restaurant in Shreveport, Louisiana.
An eyewitness who was shot but survived described the shooter as "real short," about 4'10", or nearly a foot shorter than Tyler. The other surviving shooting victim failed to pick Tyler out of a series of photos or a subsequent lineup, even though he was the only person common to both. A prostitute who testified against Tyler had served as a police informant who also had had charges against her dropped in exchange for her cooperation.
But defense lawyers did not attempt to discredit the prosecution witnesses because they already had conceded Tyler's guilt, over their client's repeated objections.
Cathy Kelly, a Louisiana lawyer who worked on Tyler's appeal, said the trial team had plenty of material to work with. "They made a decision without investigating it," Kelly said. "From the very beginning this was the way they were going to go."
Alan Golden, the lead defense lawyer at Tyler's trial, said the case against Tyler was strong. Tyler went from his run-down hotel to the Pizza Hut across the street with "a gun in one hand and a ski mask in the other," Golden recalled. "The problem was, the ski mask wasn't on."
Tyler's lawyers decided the best thing they could do was try to persuade the jury to sentence him to life in prison, instead of death, Golden said.
Golden, now in private practice in Shreveport after many years as a public defender, said he couldn't recall whether Tyler objected to his trial strategy.