By ADAM LIPTAK
WASHINGTON — A death penalty lawyer’s failure to present evidence of the trauma his client suffered in combat in the Korean War requires a new sentencing hearing, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday.
The decision makes clear that lawyers for clients facing the death penalty must present evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from military service if it is available.
The unsigned 15-page decision displayed unusual solicitude for a death-row inmate, noting that “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.”
The defendant, George Porter Jr., was convicted in 1987 of murdering his former girlfriend, Evelyn Williams, and her boyfriend, Walter Burrows, in Melbourne, Fla., the previous year. Mr. Porter represented himself for part of his trial and then decided to plead guilty.
He turned to a court-appointed lawyer, Sam Bardwell, to represent him in the sentencing hearing. Mr. Bardwell, who had never represented a defendant in a capital sentencing proceeding, did not interview any of his client’s relatives and did not obtain any school, medical or military service records. He presented only one witness, Mr. Porter’s ex-wife.
Mr. Bardwell’s investigation, Monday’s decision said, was not “even cursory.” Mr. Bardwell has explained that his client had been fatalistic and uncooperative. He did not respond to a message seeking comment on Monday.
Mr. Bardwell’s conduct “did not reflect reasonable professional judgment,” the decision said. “Had Porter’s counsel been effective, the judge and jury would have learned,” among other things, “about Porter’s heroic military service in two of the most critical — and horrific — battles of the Korean War.”
At a 1995 state-court hearing on whether Mr. Porter was entitled to a new sentencing, his company commander testified about the “ horrifying experiences” Mr. Porter had endured, including a “fierce hand-to-hand fight with the Chinese” and a two-day battle in which his company suffered casualties of more than 50 percent.
“After his discharge,” the decision said, Mr. Porter “suffered dreadful nightmares and would attempt to climb his bedroom walls with knives at night.”
Florida state courts turned down Mr. Porter’s request for a new sentencing hearing. The state trial judge relied heavily on the fact that Mr. Porter had been absent without leave in both Korea and the United States, saying that reduced the value of Mr. Porter’s military service to “inconsequential proportions.”
A federal trial judge granted Mr. Porter a new sentencing hearing in 2007, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, in Atlanta, reversed that decision, saying it would defer to the state rulings.
That was a mistake, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday in Porter v. McCollum, No. 08-10537. The Florida Supreme Court had “unreasonably discounted the evidence of Porter’s childhood abuse and military service,” the decision said.
“The relevance of Porter’s extensive combat experience is not only that he served honorably under extreme hardship and gruesome conditions,” the decision said, “but also that the jury might find mitigating the intense stress and emotional toll that combat took on Porter.”