WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday reinstated the death penalty for convicted California murderer Scott Pinholster, in a fractured ruling that will make it difficult for other prisoners to win appeals in federal court.
Imprisoned on San Quentin's Death Row after being convicted in 1984, Pinholster has been arguing for several decades that his trial attorneys were fatally incompetent.
A federal judge and a federal appeals court agreed with the mentally distressed Southern California native, but a divided Supreme Court said that a federal law restricts what new evidence can be considered when hearing a challenge to state-run trials.
"Although state prisoners may sometimes submit new evidence in federal court, (the law) is designed to strongly discourage them from doing so," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority.
The decision means federal judges who are hearing habeas corpus petitions from inmates must limit themselves to the trial record that had previously been considered by state judges.
Dissenters in the fractured decision lamented that the court's reasoning means federal judges "must turn a blind eye" to new evidence, even when that results in "harsh" outcomes.
"Some habeas petitioners are unable to develop the factual basis of their claims in state court through no fault of their own," Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted.
Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined at least part of Sotomayor's dissent, which at 41 pages was longer than Thomas' 31-page majority opinion.
All of the justices seemed to agree that Pinholster had a horrid upbringing, and that he committed a vicious crime.
Before he became a self-described "professional robber" as an adult, Pinholster suffered two head injuries as a child; one occurred when his mother ran over him with a car. A doctor recommended that he be committed to a mental hospital when he was 10. When he was 18 and in Los Angeles County Jail, other inmates beat him so badly that he began suffering epileptic seizures.
Pinholster also broke his wife's jaw when he beat her, and attacked another man with a razor. While incarcerated, he assaulted other inmates and threw urine at guards.
In January 1982, in the Southern California city of Tarzana, Pinholster committed the crime that put him on death row and brought his name to the Supreme Court.
Pinholster solicited two other men to join him in robbing a local drug dealer. The plot quickly went awry. Pinholster repeatedly stabbed one victim in the chest with a buck knife, killing him. He kicked in the head another victim, who had been mortally wounded by one of Pinholster's associates.
"At the apartment, Pinholster washed his knife, and the three split the proceeds of the robbery: $23 and one quarter-ounce of marijuana," Justice Samuel Alito recounted.
In his subsequent habeas corpus petitions, Pinholster argued that his trial attorneys had failed him. Jurors, for instance, were not told about Pinholster's mental problems, including one doctor's conclusion that he suffered from bipolar disorder. The only defense witness summoned during the penalty deliberations was his mother.
"He was a perfect gentleman at home," Pinholster's mother testified.
The court's decision Monday is the latest to spin off from the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which limits inmate appeals. The court's decision overturns the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and also, for good measure, stopped the appellate court from conducting even a limited review of Pinholster's case.
"There is no reasonable probability that the additional evidence Pinholster presented . . . would have changed the jury's verdict," Thomas said.
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