Returning from its Thanksgiving break, the Supreme Court today issued a powerful unsigned "per curiam" opinion agreeing that the ineffective assistance of counsel for Florida death row inmate George Porter Jr. prejudiced the sentence he received after his murder trial in 1988. He was convicted in the murder of a former girlfriend and her boyfriend. The Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit previously rejected his ineffective assistance claim.
Ruling in Porter v. McCollum, available here, the Court extensively detailed Porter's "horrible family life" and his trying Korean War experiences that earned him two Purple Hearts and other decorations -- none of which was told to the trial court as mitigating evidence during sentencing. The trial lawyer's failure to introduce the evidence "did not reflect reasonable professional judgment" and could well have affected the outcome of the case, the Court said.
In language that is sure to be cited in future cases involving veterans, the Court said that the fact that Porter went AWOL in Korea did not detract from the significance of his combat experience as mitigating evidence. "Our nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did. Moreover, the relevance of Porter's extensive combat experience is not only that he served honorably under extreme hardship and gruesome conditions, but also that the jury might find mitigating the intense stress and mental and emotional toll that combat took on Porter."
The ruling, which does not disturb the finding of guilt, sends the case back to the 11th Circuit for further proceedings affecting his sentence. The high court typically issues "per curiam" or "for the court" opinion in cases in which the justices are in agreement without needing to hear oral argument.
The Court on Monday also issued other orders and heard oral arguments. More later at nlj.com