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A certificate of appealability should issue if the applicant has made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right, 28 U.S.C.S. § 2253(c)(2), which the United States Supreme Court has interpreted to require that the petitioner must demonstrate that reasonable jurists would find the district court's assessment of the constitutional claims debatable or wrong.
During his capital murder trial's penalty phase, petitioner Robert Tennard presented evidence that he had an IQ of 67. The jury was instructed to determine the appropriate punishment by considering two "special issues," which inquired into whether the crime was committed deliberately and whether the defendant posed a risk of future dangerousness. These were materially identical to two special issues found insufficient in Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 106 L. Ed. 2d 256, 109 S. Ct. 2934, for the jury to give effect to Penry's mitigating mental retardation and childhood abuse evidence. The jury answered both special issues affirmatively, and petitioner was sentenced to death. The Federal District Court denied petitioner’s federal habeas petition in which he claimed that his death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment as interpreted in Penry, and denied a certificate of appealability (COA). The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that (1) the appropriate threshold test for Penry claims was whether there was "constitutionally relevant" mitigating evidence, that is, evidence of a "uniquely severe" permanent handicap that bore a nexus to the crime in question; (2) evidence of low IQ alone did not constitute a uniquely severe condition; (3) no evidence had been introduced that would tie the petitioner’s IQ score to mental retardation; and (4) even if the petitioner's evidence was mental-retardation evidence, his claim would fail, because he had not shown that the crime in question was attributable to his low IQ. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Under the circumstances, should the lower courts have issued a certificate of appealability (COA)?
The Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals, holding that the Fifth Circuit's "uniquely severe permanent handicap" and "nexus" tests were incorrect. According to the Court, the Fifth Circuit's test would screen out any positive aspect of a defendant's character, because good character traits were neither "handicaps" nor typically traits to which criminal activity was "attributable." In the mitigating circumstances context, the question was simply whether the evidence was of such a character that it might serve as a basis for a sentence less than death. The Court further held that reasonable jurists would find debatable or wrong the district court's disposition of petitioner's low-IQ-based Penry claim, and that petitioner was therefore entitled to a certificate of appealability. Reasonable jurists could have concluded that the low IQ evidence petitioner presented was relevant mitigating evidence. Reasonable jurists also could have concluded that the state court's application of Penry to the facts of petitioner's case was unreasonable. The relationship between the special issues and petitioner's low IQ evidence had the same essential features as the relationship between the special issues and Penry's mental retardation evidence.