[ Souter ]
[ OConnor ]
[ Kennedy ]
The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.
See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.
ROMPILLA v. BEARD, SECRETARY, PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT
Petitioner Rompilla was convicted of murder and other crimes. During the penalty phase, the jury found the aggravating factors that the murder was committed during a felony, that it was committed by torture, and that Rompilla had a significant history of felony convictions indicating the use or threat of violence. In mitigation, five members of Rompillas family beseeched the jury for mercy. He was sentenced to death, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. His new lawyers filed for state postconviction relief, claiming ineffective assistance by his trial counsel in failing to present significant mitigating evidence about Rompillas childhood, mental capacity and health, and alcoholism. The state courts found that trial counsel had sufficiently investigated the mitigation possibilities. Rompilla then raised inadequate representation in a federal habeas petition. The District Court found that the State Supreme Court had unreasonably applied Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, concluding that trial counsel had not investigated obvious signs that Rompilla had a troubled childhood and suffered from mental illness and alcoholism, unjustifiably relying instead on Rompillas own description of an unexceptional background. In reversing, the Third Circuit found nothing unreasonable in the state courts application of Strickland, given defense counsels efforts to uncover mitigation evidence from Rompilla, certain family members, and three mental health experts. The court distinguished Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510in which counsel had failed to investigate adequately to the point of ignoring the leads their limited enquiry yieldednoting that, although trial counsel did not unearth useful information in Rompillas school, medical, police, and prison records, their investigation had gone far enough to give them reason to think that further efforts would not be a wise use of their limited resources.
Held: Even when a capital defendant and his family members have suggested that no mitigating evidence is available, his lawyer is bound to make reasonable efforts to obtain and review material that counsel knows the prosecution will probably rely on as evidence of aggravation at the trials sentencing phase. Pp. 418.
(a) Rompillas entitlement to federal habeas relief turns on showing that the state courts resolution of his ineffective-assistance claim under Strickland resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by this Court, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). The state courts result must be not only incorrect but also objectively unreasonable. Wiggins, supra, at 520521. In judging the defenses investigation in preparing for a capital trials sentencing phase, hindsight is discounted by pegging adequacy to counsels perspective at the time investigative decisions were made and by giving deference to counsels judgments. Strickland, supra, at 689, 691. Pp. 45.
the lawyers were deficient in failing to examine the court file
on Rompillas prior rape and assault conviction. They
knew that the Commonwealth intended to seek the death penalty
by proving that Rompilla had a significant history of felony
convictions indicating the use or threat of violence, that it
would attempt to establish this history by proving the prior
conviction, and that it would emphasize his violent character
by introducing a transcript of the rape victims trial
testimony. Although the prior conviction file was a public
record, readily available at the courthouse where Rompilla was
to be tried, counsel looked at no part of it until warned by
the prosecution a second time, and even then did not examine
the entire file. With every effort to view the facts as a
defense lawyer would have at the time, it is difficult to see
how counsel could have failed to realize that not examining the
file would seriously compromise their opportunity to respond to
an aggravation case. Their duty to make all reasonable efforts
to learn what they could about the offense the prosecution was
going to use certainly included obtaining the
Commonwealths own readily available file to learn what it
knew about the crime, to discover any mitigating evidence it
would downplay, and to anticipate the details it would
emphasize. The obligation to examine the file was particularly
pressing here because the violent prior offense was similar to
the crime charged and because Rompillas sentencing
strategy stressed residual doubt. This obligation is not just
common sense, but is also described in the American Bar
Association Standards for Criminal Justice, which are
(c) Because the state courts found counsels representation adequate, they never reached the prejudice element of a Strickland claim, whether there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsels unprofessional errors, the result would have been different, 466 U.S., at 694. A de novo examination of this element shows that counsels lapse was prejudicial. Had they looked at the prior conviction file, they would have found a range of mitigation leads that no other source had opened up. The imprisonment records contained in that file pictured Rompillas childhood and mental health very differently from anything they had seen or heard. The accumulated entriese.g., that Rompilla had a series of incarcerations, often related to alcohol; and test results that would have pointed the defenses mental health experts to schizophrenia and other disorderswould have destroyed the benign conception of Rompillas upbringing and mental capacity counsel had formed from talking to five family members and from the mental health experts reports. Further effort would presumably have unearthed much of the material postconviction counsel found. Alerted to the school, medical, and prison records that trial counsel never saw, postconviction counsel found red flags pointing up a need for further testing, which revealed organic brain damage and childhood problems probably related to fetal alcohol syndrome. These findings in turn would probably have prompted a look at easily available school and juvenile records, which showed additional problems, including evidence of a highly abusive home life. The evidence adds up to a mitigation case bearing no relation to the few naked pleas for mercy actually put before the jury. The undiscovered mitigating evidence, taken as a whole, might well have influenced the jurys appraisal of [Rompillas] culpability, Wiggins, supra, at 538, and the likelihood of a different result had the evidence gone in is sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome actually reached at sentencing, Strickland, supra, at 694. Pp. 1418.
355 F.3d 233, reversed.
Souter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, OConnor, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. OConnor, J., filed a concurring opinion. Kennedy, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia and Thomas, JJ., joined.