Kerry Scanlon Argues Death Penalty Case Before U.S. Supreme Court

November 4, 2009

Kerry Scanlon, Chair of our Equal Rights Litigation and Compliance Group, argued before the United States Supreme Court on November 4, 2009 in Wood v. Allen, a pro bono case in which the firm represents an Alabama prisoner who was sentenced to death after his trial counsel failed to investigate or present to the sentencing jury the fact that he has an IQ of 59 and is borderline mentally retarded.  The Supreme Court has previously held that the failure to investigate and develop this type of powerful mitigation evidence, which is likely to garner sympathy from the jury, constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel.  The firm’s work on this case started in 1999.  After the Alabama state courts denied relief based on this claim, we filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal court.  The federal district judge ruled in our favor and ordered the state to sentence Wood to life in prison without parole or grant him a new trial on that issue, but the state of Alabama appealed and the Eleventh Circuit reversed by a 2-1 vote, with a strong dissenting opinion.  We were successful in convincing the Supreme Court to grant the petition for a writ of certiorari, and the case before the Court presented several issues including a statutory construction issue that arises in many death penalty appeals.  The Court was very active and Mr. Scanlon answered multiple questions from each of the Justices except Justice Thomas, who continued his practice of not asking questions.  A decision is expected later this Term.

Mr. Scanlon was assisted in the argument by David Bickart (Retired Partner, Washington, DC Office), Robert Grass (Counsel, New York Office, Litigation), Nathan Cohen (Associate, New York Office, Litigation), Stephanie Cohen (Legal Assistant, Washington, DC Office), Mary Rubino (Legal Assistant, Washington, DC Office) and Melissa Burton (Legal Secretary, Washington, DC Office).

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