I’ve previously discussed how brain dysfunction may be a double-edged sword in criminal cases. Proving a criminal defendant is more impulsive than most, more likely to act irrationally, or more likely to react violently than others under stressful circumstances may both mitigate culpability and predict future dangerousness. Courts recognize this double-edged potential. When faced with claims about ineffective assistance of counsel for foregoing neurological testing and/or its introduction at trial, courts often find these decisions to be part of reasonable trial strategy by defense counsel. The case today follows that trend:
Brain Dysfunction, Capital Mitigation and the Double-Edged Sword
Cantu v. Thaler, 2011 WL 222986 (5th Cir. 2011).
The defendant was convicted of double-murder and sentenced to death. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. The defendant appeals the denial of his post-conviction petition. He claims to have received ineffective assistance of counsel during trial sentencing because his trial counsel failed to discover and present evidence of his mental disorders. During the state post conviction proceeding, the defendant introduced expert testimony that there are “multiple, overlapping indicators” suggesting that the defendant suffers from “organic brain damage or a severe mood altering disorder.” “Any reasonably competent psychiatric profession” would have recognized the need to subject the defendant “to a complete [n]europsychological evaluation to rule out an organic cause for his behavior.” Moreover, the stimulants he was using interacted with his condition and caused his “biological and chemical malfunctions to escalate.” Defendant’s trial counsel testified that he decided not to submit the defendant to a psychological examination because he feared the results could have strengthened the State’s position that the defendant was a sociopath and thus a future danger warranting the death penalty. The state court found the performance of the defendant’s trial counsel to be competent and zealous, and the explanation of their trial strategy to be consistent and credible. The circuit court now affirms, finding the state court reasonably applied the federal law.