By Emily Garcia Uhrig, Associate Professor of Law, University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law
The Supreme Court will hear argument tomorrow in Wood v. Allen, an Alabama state capital case in which the petitioner, Holly Wood, challenges his death sentence for fatally shooting his ex-girlfriend out of jealousy while she was sleeping in her home.
Mr. Wood's challenge stems from defense counsel's failure to investigate and develop mitigation evidence for the penalty phase of his trial based on his substantial mental deficiencies. (To begin with, Mr. Wood has an IQ estimated in the 60s.) Mr. Wood was represented by three attorneys - two, experienced and one, just out of law school. Experienced counsel assumed responsibility for the guilt phase of Mr. Wood's trial and put new counsel, who had no prior criminal trial or capital case experience, in charge of the penalty phase.
Defense counsel learned from a pretrial competency evaluation that Mr. Wood functioned "in the borderline range of intellect." But despite the fact that issues pertaining to mental capacity often provide fertile ground for mitigation during the penalty phase of capital cases, counsel did not investigate further Mr. Wood's limited intellectual functioning nor introduce any evidence on the subject during the penalty phase. The jury recommended death by a 10-2 margin, the statutory minimum for such recommendation in Alabama. The judge abided by the jury's recommendation and sentenced Mr. Wood to death by electrocution.