Lawlor v. Zook (P)

A Virginia state court sentenced the petitioner to death after his capital murder conviction. The district court dismissed his petition for review of his death sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. This was error.

The state court excluded specialized and relevant testimony of a qualified witness who would have explained that the petitioner “represents a very low risk for committing acts of violence while incarcerated,” where the jury’s only choices were life in prison without parole or death. Exclusion of this testimony was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The state court’s error in this regard had a substantial and injurious effect.

The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that a capital sentencing body must be permitted to consider any admissible and relevant mitigating information in determining whether to assign the defendant a sentence less than death. Although the Virginia Supreme Court recognized this clearly established law, it attempted to circumvent it by relying on baseless interpretations of state law that themselves contravened longstanding Supreme Court law. A state cannot bar the consideration of evidence if the sentencer could reasonably find that it warrants a sentence less than death. Once this threshold is met, the Eighth Amendment requires that the jury be able to consider and give effect to a capital defendant’s mitigating evidence.

Reversed and remanded.

Lawlor v. Zook (P), No. 17-6, Nov. 27, 2018. CAV (Thacker) from EDVA at Norfolk (Davis).



Categories: 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Opinions, Published

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