In DeBruce v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections
, (11th Cir. July 15, 2014), a robbery-murder case, the Eleventh Circuit (Wilson; Martin concurring; Tjoflat dissenting) found that the attorney retained by DeBruce’s family some three to four weeks before the capital trial began was ineffective as to the sentencing phase. The panel majority found, inter alia, that even if it “accept[ed] the state court's factual determination that trial counsel made a strategic decision not to investigate mitigation evidence based on the results of the pre-trial report governing DeBruce's competency to stand trial, that decision could not have been reasonable as it would have been based on a failure to understand the law. Because no lawyer could reasonably have made a strategic decision to forego the pursuit of mitigation evidence based on the results of the pre-trial report governing competency to stand trial, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals' conclusion to the contrary constitutes an unreasonable application of Strickland's performance prong.” (Citations omitted.) In addition, the decision not to further investigate after receiving the competency report was all the more unreasonable given that the report contradicted information provided by DeBruce and his mother, the only people trial counsel asked about DeBruce’s background. As a result, DeBruce’s mother was permitted to present “grossly inaccurate testimony” at the sentencing proceeding. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals’ conclusion that trial counsel was not deficient in failing to question DeBruce and his mother about contradictions between their accounts and the report constituted an unreasonable application of Strickland and its progeny, according to the panel majority.
As for prejudice, the panel majority observed that trial counsel’s deficient performance left the sentencing jury with no knowledge of “the daily beatings that DeBruce suffered as a child at the hands of his older sister, his resistance to joining gangs despite their assaults and intimidation, the pervasive violence in his neighborhood that caused him to witness the stabbing of a neighbor and his brother being shot, his one or more suicide attempts, DeBruce's efforts to nurse his sister while she recovered from an incapacitating stroke, DeBruce's alcoholic and disengaged father, or his struggles in school and his low-average intelligence. . . . Instead, the sentencing jury heard DeBruce's mother's falsely embellished testimony that he completed high school, attended college, and that although he had an impoverished childhood, it was otherwise unremarkable. Though the jurors also heard his mother make passing mention of his treatment for a mental disorder, this was not accompanied by any explanation, whatsoever, of the disorder or its effects.” In finding no prejudice, the state court had relied in part on its finding that the mental health evidence presented in the post-conviction proceedings was inconsistent. The panel majority concluded that this finding was not supported by the record.