Catch 22 and the Death Penalty: Shredding Due Process to Punish the Abused
Petitioner Benny Lee Hodge was convicted of murder. Then, after his trial counsel failed to present any mitigation evidence during the penalty phase of his trial, he was sentenced to death. In fact, counsel had not even investigated any possible grounds for mitigation. If counsel had made any effort, he would have found that Hodge, as a child, suffered what the Kentucky Supreme Court called a “most severe and unimaginable level of physical and mental abuse.” No. 2009–SC–000791–MR (Aug. 25, 2011), App. to Pet for Cert. 11. The Commonwealth conceded that counsel’s performance was constitutionally deficient as a result. Yet the court below concluded that Hodge would have been sentenced to death anyway because even if this evidence had been presented, it would not have “explained” his actions, and thus the jury would have arrived at the same result. Ibid. This was error. Mitigation evidence need not, and rarely could, “explai[n]” a heinous crime; rather, mitigation evidence allows a jury to make a reasoned moral decision whether the individual defendant deserves to be executed, or to be shown mercy instead. The Kentucky Supreme Court’s error of law could well have led to an error in result. I would grant the petition for certiorari, summarily vacate, and remand to allow the Kentucky Supreme Court to reconsider its decision under the proper standard.
Just so we’re clear, Hodge failed to get his constitutionally required level of performance from his lawyer, effectively denying him his right to counsel and due process. And the Court will leave this stand. This passage shows the catch-22 of the death penalty. The Court has insisted that due process doesn’t require getting a correct result, it requires following the correct procedures. This is why actual innocence is not a federal claim. But when, like here, basic fairness has been denied, whether because of incompetent state appointed defense lawyers, or cheating by police or prosecutors, the Court shifts. No longer is following the correct procedures what is required. Instead, there is an independent inquiry where judges decide what the jury would have done if they had known what they should have known. This not only undermines the right to a jury trial, but it directly contradicts the reasoning for not allowing innocence claims.
Sotomayor is correct, in my mind, that the Court erred in failing to overturn the ruling below. Mitigation is not about explaining the crime. This is basic stuff. But it’s important to understand what was kept from the jury’s view. Like practically all death penalty defendants, Hodge was himself a victim of horrific abuse. Here the justice recounts the evidence. Read on if you can stomach it.
The beatings began in utero. Hodge’s father battered his mother while she carried Hodge in her womb, and continued to beat her once Hodge was born, even while she held the infant in her arms. When Hodge was a few years older, he escaped his mother’s next husband, a drunkard, by staying with his stepfather’s parents, bootleggers who ran a brothel. His mother next married Billy Joe. Family members described Billy Joe as a “‘monster.’” Id., at 7. Billy Joe controlled what little money the family had, leaving them to live in abject poverty. He beat Hodge’s mother relentlessly, once so severely that she had a miscarriage. He raped her regularly. And he threatened to kill her while pointing a gun at her. All of this abuse occurred while Hodge and his sisters could see or hear. And following many beatings, Hodge and his sisters thought their mother was dead.
Billy Joe also targeted Hodge’s sisters, molesting at least one of them. But according to neighbors and family members, as the only male in the house, Hodge bore the brunt of Billy Joe’s anger, especially when he tried to defend his mother and sisters from attack. Billy Joe often beat Hodge with a belt, sometimes leaving imprints from his belt buckle on Hodge’s body. Hodge was kicked, thrown against walls, and punched. Billy Joe once made Hodge watch while he brutally killed Hodge’s dog. On another occasion, Billy Joe rubbed Hodge’s nose in his own feces.
The abuse took its toll on Hodge. He had been an average student in school, but he began to change when Billy Joe entered his life. He started stealing around age 12, and wound up in juvenile detention for his crimes. There, Hodge was beaten routinely and subjected to frequent verbal and emotional abuse. After assaulting Billy Joe at age 16, Hodge returned to juvenile detention, where the abuse continued. Hodge remained there until he was 18. Over the 16 years between his release from juvenile detention and the murder, Hodge committed various theft crimes that landed him in prison for about 13 of those years. He twice escaped, but each time, he was recaptured.
It would be nice to believe that this was some sort of aberration, but anyone with a little familiarity with the backgrounds of death row inmates knows that it’s not. The death penalty is billed as a punishment for the worst of the worst, but really it is a punishment for those who have been most failed. No prosecutor wants a jury to hear these stories because it doesn’t fit with how the death penalty is sold. So this creates incentives to cheat and for judges to look the other way. That is your death penalty. It convicts the innocent, is racially biased, makes a mockery of the law and provides our harshest punishment to those most brutalized, all while spending more while providing no additional public safety. And the money and attention it uses drain money that could be used to intercede in situations like this, potentially breaking the cycle of violence – if that was what our goal was.
The death penalty is a brutal policy of failure.