Saturday, January 30, 2016

Saving Stanley

On Wednesday, January 27, 2016 the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), in a 6-3 decision reversed the capital murder conviction of Stanley Lamar Griffin. The CCA found the evidence sufficient only to convict the lesser offense of murder and remanded the case back to Brazos County district court for a new punishment trial.

I represented Stanley Griffin at his capital murder trial. This post, however, comments only upon the CCA opinion. I have no special insight because I represented Stanley at trial. Most of what is written here could be written by anyone who has read the majority opinion and the dissent. 

The dissent is where I focus. 

The dissent was written by Judge Kevin Yeary. He was joined by Presiding Judge Keller and Judge Meyers. The dissent runs 57 pages, almost 6 times longer than the 10 page majority opinion. The dissent deals with all points of error advanced in the direct appeal. This a curious thing. Of those 57 pages, a full 38 pages, more than 2/3 of the dissenting opinion, deal not with the issue on which the majority reversed Stanley's capital murder conviction, but instead on mental retardation evidence introduced in the punishment phase of the trial. 

Mental retardation (MR) - intellectual disability is the proper clinical term - was heavily litigated at Stanley's trial. Anyone wishing to know how heavily need only read the dissent's parsing of the MR testimony. All this is because, for the uninitiated, The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has determined the MR are ineligible for the death penalty. It is called an Atkins claim, after the SCOTUS decision deciding it.

Importantly, the dissent spends time analyzing Texas' capital murder contribution to the adaptive behavior prong of a clinical definition of MR - the so called Briseno factors. The following begins the dissent's Briseno factors analysis:
'There are other evidentiary factors which fact-finders in the criminal trial context
might also focus upon in weighing evidence as indicative of mental retardation or of a personality disorder [citing Briseno]' Cunningham [one defense MR expert] and Proctor [State MR expert] both testified that these other factors are not part of the clinical diagnosis of mental retardation within the professional scientific community but that they may be considered by the fact finder in the criminal trial context. 
I loathe these "other" factors appended onto clinically vetted adaptive behavior domains used to diagnosis intellectual disability. Other bloggers on Texas criminal justice have plowed the ground better than I. What I can say is I live with intellectual disability, and not just during my time with Stanley. I think about it every time I look at my youngest son. 

When Judge Yeary began writing, did he think it to be the majority opinion? Is this why it addresses each of the major points raised in Stanley's direct appeal? Or was it written in the hope that on a Motion for Rehearing 2 of the CCA judges signing on to the majority decision can be swung and it will end up the majority opinion? Why else would the dissent be written the way it was? Everything written after the first two lines of page 15 of the dissent is dicta, not necessary to address the basis of the reversal in the majority opinion. 

The cynic in me reads all the pages in the dissent dedicated to mental retardation and thinks how the CCA saw Stanley's case in the long term. In other words, collateral habeas appeal. The State's own intellectual functioning testing placed Stanley in the bottom 2% of the general population. Could the CCA have feared this? Combined this with the role the Briseno factors played in the non-clinical MR evidence could have presented a perfect storm for a grant by SCOTUS of certiorari on the Briseno factors. Were there fears SCOTUS would scuttle the Briseno factors in adaptive behavior analysis for Atkins claims the way SCOTUS scuttled Florida's treatment of IQ scores for Atkins claims in Hall v. Florida?

This is a speculative stretch, but if such a future would have unfolded, a tsunami of subsequent habeas claims based on improper reliance on Briseno factors by Texas trial and habeas courts would follow. Every Atkins claim would be subject to argument that it should be re-litigated based on previous improper reliance on Brsieno. If so, by saving Stanley the CCA also saved Briseno.

The cynic would say the CCA thought it better to reverse Stanley's case on the narrower grounds of an improperly charged capital murder than risking the future dismantling of the entirety of the post-Atkins landscape in Texas.

It matters not to me how the CCA saved Stanley, just that he was.

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