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Rompilla v. Beard

Supreme Court of the United States

January 18, 2005, Argued ; June 20, 2005, Decided

No. 04-5462

Opinion

 [*377]   [**2460]  Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case calls for specific application of the standard of reasonable competence required on the part of defense counsel by the Sixth Amendment. We hold that even when a capital defendant's family members and the defendant himself have suggested that no mitigating evidence is available, his lawyer is bound to make reasonable efforts to obtain and review material that counsel knows the prosecution will probably rely on as evidence of aggravation at the sentencing phase of trial.

On the morning of January 14, 1988, James Scanlon was discovered dead in a bar he ran in Allentown, Pennsylvania, his body having been stabbed repeatedly and set on fire. Ronald Rompilla was indicted for the murder and related offenses, and the Commonwealth gave notice of intent to ask  [*378]  for the death penalty. Two public defenders were assigned to the case.

The jury at the guilt phase of trial found Rompilla guilty on all counts, and during the ensuing penalty phase, the prosecutor sought to prove three aggravating [****9]  factors to justify a death sentence: that the murder was committed in the course of another felony; that the murder was committed by torture; and that Rompilla had a significant history of felony convictions indicating the use or threat of violence. See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9711(d)(6), (8), (9) (2002). The Commonwealth presented evidence on all three aggravators, and the jury found all proven. Rompilla's evidence in mitigation consisted of relatively brief testimony: five of his family members argued in effect for residual doubt, and beseeched the jury for mercy, saying that they believed Rompilla was innocent and a good man. Rompilla's 14-year-old son testified that he [**2461]  loved his father and would visit him in prison. The jury acknowledged this evidence to the point of finding, as two factors in mitigation, that Rompilla's son had testified on his behalf and that rehabilitation  [***370]  was possible.  But the jurors assigned the greater weight to the aggravating factors, and sentenced Rompilla to death. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed both conviction and sentence.  Commonwealth v. Rompilla, 539 Pa. 499, 653 A.2d 626 (1995).

In December 1995, with new lawyers,  [****10]  Rompilla filed claims under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9541 et seq. (2004), including ineffective assistance by trial counsel in failing to present significant mitigating evidence about Rompilla's childhood, mental capacity and health, and alcoholism. The postconviction court found that trial counsel had done enough to investigate the possibilities of a mitigation case, and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the denial of relief.  Commonwealth v. Rompilla, 554 Pa. 378, 721 A.2d 786 (1998).

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545 U.S. 374 *; 125 S. Ct. 2456 **; 162 L. Ed. 2d 360 ***; 2005 U.S. LEXIS 4846 ****; 73 U.S.L.W. 4522; 31 A.L.R. Fed. 2d 595; 18 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 419

RONALD ROMPILLA, Petitioner v. JEFFREY A. BEARD, SECRETARY, PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

Subsequent History:  [****1] Transferred by Commonwealth v. Rompilla, 603 Pa. 332, 983 A.2d 1207, 2009 Pa. LEXIS 2424 (Pa., Nov. 19, 2009)

Prior History: ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT.

Rompilla v. Horn, 355 F.3d 233, 2004 U.S. App. LEXIS 788 (3d Cir. Pa., 2004)

Disposition: Reversed.

CORE TERMS

prior conviction, mitigation, defense counsel, circumstances, aggravating, sentencing, case file, Guidelines, records, investigate, details, mitigating evidence, postconviction, death penalty, murder, rape, residual doubt, family member, trial counsel, convictions, lawyers, cases, alcohol, violent, felony, phase, rigid, mental health expert, reasonable effort, defense lawyer

Criminal Law & Procedure, Jurisdiction, Cognizable Issues, Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, Counsel, Effective Assistance of Counsel, General Overview, Tests for Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, Threshold Requirements, Sentencing, Capital Punishment, Aggravating Circumstances, Sentencing, Bifurcated Trials, Mitigating Circumstances, Standards of Review, Deferential Review, Adjustments & Enhancements, Criminal History, Entry of Pleas, Guilty Pleas, Defenses, De Novo Review