RESPONDENT: Jeffrey A. Beard, Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
LOCATION: Meramec River
DOCKET NO.: 04-5462
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
CITATION: 545 US 374 (2005)
GRANTED: Sep 28, 2004
ARGUED: Jan 18, 2005
DECIDED: Jun 20, 2005
Amy Zapp - argued the cause for Respondent
Billy H. Nolas - argued the cause for Petitioner
Traci L. Lovitt -
Facts of the case
A Pennsylvania court convicted Ronald Rompilla of murder. During the sentencing phase, the prosecution presented to the jury Rompilla's previous rape and assault conviction, as an aggravating factor to justify the death sentence. The jury sentenced Rompilla to death and the state supreme court affirmed. Rompilla's new lawyers filed an additional appeal, arguing that Rompilla's trial counsel had been ineffective for failing to present mitigating evidence about his various personal problems. The state courts found that Rompilla's counsel had sufficiently investigated mitigation possibilities. After Rompilla filed a federal habeas petition, a district court reversed the sentence and ruled the state supreme court had unreasonably applied the U.S. Supreme Court's 1984 decision in Strickland v. Washington. Had the state court followed that case, the district court ruled, the court would have found Rompilla's trial counsel ineffective for failing to investigate obvious signs of Rompilla's troubled childhood, mental illness and alcoholism. The Third Circuit reversed.
Did the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel require counsel to try to obtain material counsel had known the prosecution would probably use at the trial's sentencing phase?
Media for Rompilla v. BeardAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 18, 2005 in Rompilla v. Beard
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 20, 2005 in Rompilla v. Beard
William H. Rehnquist:
The opinion of the Court in Rompilla versus Beard will be announced by Justice Souter.
David H. Souter:
This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
The petitioner Ronald Rompilla was convicted of capital murder.
In preparing for the penalty phase at the trial, at which Rompilla might be sentenced to life imprisonment or to death, Rompilla’s counsel sought mitigating evidence from Rompilla from some of his family members and from medical experts.
Those to us has proved unhelpful and in the end, Rompilla’s penalty phase defense relied on residual doubt and a plea for mercy.
The states penalty case as based in part on the record of victim testimony from an earlier trial that had resulted in Rompilla’s conviction for rape, a crime that he had committed under similar circumstances to this one.
Rompilla was sentenced to death and his conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal. With new counsel, Rompilla filed for post conviction relief charging that his trial counsel had provided ineffective assistance under the sixth amendment.
Rompilla’s new lawyers argued that the trial counsel had failed to honor a significant mitigating evidence.
For example, an easily obtainable school and prison record showed that Rompilla was reared in a slum environment by a father who terrorized him regularly and an alcoholic mother who drank heavily during pregnancy and showed that Rompilla himself exhibited signs of schizophrenia.
The States Courts, however, found the trial counsel had not been deficient in failing to discover this evidence because by interviewing Rompilla, family members and medical experts, they had made sufficient inquiries.
Rompilla then filed for a federal habeas relief which was granted by the District Court but reversed by a divided Third Circuit.
As explained in an opinion filed with the Clerk of Court today, we now reverse the judgment of the Third Circuit.
In looking back on counsel’s performance in a case like this, we realize that counsel act in the thick of things without the clarity of hindsight but we can find no objective justification for one of the counsel’s significant decisions here.
Counsel knew well in advance that the prosecution intended to introduce dramatic victim testimony from the prior rape trial in order to obtain the death penalty.
Nonetheless, trial counsel never looked at the prior conviction file even though it was easily available at Rompilla’s trial courthouse.
Without making reasonable efforts to review the file, defense counsel had no way of knowing whether the prosecution would be quoting selectively from the transcript or whether there were circumstances extenuating the behavior described by the victim.
The obligation to get the file was particularly pressing here owing to the similarity of the violent prior offense and to Rompilla’s strategy of residual doubt.
Counsel’s conversations with Rompilla and his family could not reasonably have been expected to substitute for looking at the file itself.
It is uncontested that if counsel had looked in the file, they would have found documents showing a range of new mitigating leads including evidence of Rompilla’s unusually abusive home life and his possible mental illness.
This evidence might well have influenced the jury’s assessment of Rompilla culpability.
For these reasons and others given in the opinion, we reverse the judgment of the Third Circuit and require Pennsylvania either to retry the case on penalty or to stipulate to a life sentence.
Justice O’Connor has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Kennedy has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice, Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas join.