6th Circuit affirms denial of Ohio death row inmate’s habeas petition despite finding trial counsel were deficient as to sentencing
Posted on: 7/22/2013 03:07:19 PM by Peoples

In Fitzpatrick v. Robinson, ___ F.3d ___, 2013 WL 3762886 (6th Cir. July 19, 2013), the Sixth Circuit (Clay with McKeague and Kethledge) affirmed the district’s denial of claims that trial counsel were ineffective as to Stanley Fitzpatrick’s guilty plea and as to the sentencing proceeding, and that Fitzpatrick’s waiver of a jury and his guilty plea were not knowing and voluntary.

Fitzpatrick complained that trial counsel failed to adequately inform themselves and the trial court about Fitzpatrick’s mental impairments prior to the guilty plea. In determining whether the state court’s rejection of this claim involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, the panel found it was required to disregard mental health testimony that had been presented by Fitzpatrick at a pre-Pinholster evidentiary hearing. Looking to what was before the state court, the panel concluded that Fitzpatrick was not entitled to relief. It noted, inter alia, that none of the experts who had evaluated Fitzpatrick prior to the plea had ever expressed doubts about Fitzpatrick’s competency or his ability to waive his rights. The state court record also did not support a finding of prejudice. 

Fitzpatrick had further contended that trial counsel were ineffective in failing to investigate and present evidence of his mental impairments to the three-judge sentencing panel. In addressing the deficient performance component of this claim, the court of appeals concluded that evidence developed in federal court could be considered because the state court had resolved the claim solely on the prejudice prong of the ineffective assistance of counsel test. The appeals court then observed that while an attorney is entitled to rely on the opinion of experts, an attorney may not – as happened here – "willfully blind himself to the expertise of such an expert . . .." Although trial counsel had Fitzpatrick evaluated to assess whether he had been insane at the time of the capital offense, trial counsel refused to receive the results of an IQ test administered by the expert who had found that Fitzpatrick had an IQ of 69. Such results would clearly have been mitigating and trial counsel’s failure to consider the IQ score was unreasonable. But because the state court had found no prejudice from any failing by trial counsel as to sentencing, § 2254(d)(1) applied to that finding and the appeals court was precluded from considering the mental health evidence presented at the federal hearing. Looking only to what was before the state court, which included jail records discussing Fitzpatrick malingering psychosis, the appeals court found that it was not unreasonable "for the state court to conclude that further investigation into [Fitzpatrick’s] mental state would not lead to information that would have caused the three-judge panel not to impose the death penalty."

Finally, the panel of the appeals court ruled: "Reviewing the record that the Ohio Supreme Court had before it, there is no basis to upset the Ohio Supreme Court’s conclusion that [Fitzpatrick’s] jury waiver and guilty plea were entered knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently."