Appeals court throws out Cobb County death sentence

A Marietta man sent to death row 33 years ago deserves a new sentencing hearing because his jury was given “a profoundly misleading picture” of who he was, the federal appeals court in Atlanta said in a recent ruling.

The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel threw out the death sentence imposed against Lawrence Jefferson by a Cobb County jury.

Jefferson’s lawyers failed him at trial by ignoring “a series of red flags that suggested that Jefferson’s aberrant behavior was the result of organic brain damage sustained at the age of two when his head was run over by an automobile.”

At trial, Jefferson was convicted of killing and robbing 37-year-old Edward Taulbee, his best friend and supervisor at a construction site. After bludgeoning Taulbee to death, Jefferson took his wallet and car.

Cobb County’s medical examiner testified that Taulbee was pummeled to death with a tree trunk weighing about 40 pounds. His body was found May 2, 1985, at an abandoned boat ramp at Lake Allatoona.

If Jefferson’s lawyers had conducted a proper investigation and presented evidence that showed Jefferson suffered organic brain damage, it was likely that one or more jurors would not have wanted him sentenced to death, Judge Stanley Marcus wrote.

Jefferson’s brain damage “significantly affected his conduct and impulse control at the time of the killing,” Marcus said.

But his jury heard nothing about “the headaches and blackout spells he thereafter suffered; and nothing about the resulting frontal lobe and neurological damage he sustained so early in his life, which likely caused diminished impulse control, irritability and short-temperedness, intermittent outbursts of rage, impaired judgment and an inability to foresee the consequences of his actions,” the decision said.

Jefferson’s lawyer, Jack Martin, said the decision was a long time coming.

“Here, the lawyers learned that when their client was only two years old, his skull was run over by a car and there remained a visible indent and scar on his head,” he said. “It is beyond belief they would not at least do further evaluation to determine whether he has a permanent brain injury.”

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling is noteworthy in that the judges who threw out Jefferson’s sentence are among the least likely on the court to do so. Marcus was joined by Chief Judge Ed Carnes and Judge Gerald Tjoflat. The three are conservative jurists who typically rule against death penalty appeals.

Even more remarkable was what happened during Jefferson’s appeals in state court before Judge Joseph Newton.

After conducting a two-day hearing and accepting legal briefs from lawyers for Jefferson and the state, Newton’s law clerk called a lawyer in state Attorney General’s Office and asked her to prepare an order for the judge to sign that dismissed Jefferson’s appeal.

In August 1992, the state attorney mailed a proposed order to the judge’s office in Waycross. The following month, Newton signed the order that, except for the date, a concluding sentence and his signature, was identical to the proposed order sent to him.

It appears that Newton, who is now deceased, did not closely read over the proposed order. That’s because it had 21 errors, including a misspelling on the first page: aggravated battery was “aggravated batty.” The word constitutionally was misspelled on page 9. On page 21, reserved was misspelled “reservd.”

Even worse, Newton’s order referred to an affidavit signed by lawyer Michael Hauptman even though he had no connection to the case, the 11th Circuit’s ruling said.

Newton’s order, replete with “glaring errors,” shows that Jefferson did not receive the “full and fair hearing” he deserved, Marcus wrote.

The state attorney general’s had no comment.

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