The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered Georgia courts to take another look at a Cobb County death-penalty case and consider claims that defense lawyers mishandled the case.
The ruling, over the objections of four justices, stated that attorneys for Demarcus Ali Sears tried to get jurors to spare Sears by noting he came from a stable and loving family. A death sentence would have devastated his family, the lawyers said.
"But that strategy backfired," five justices of the high court said in an unsigned opinion.
A Cobb jury sentenced Sears to death for kidnapping 59-year-old Smyrna grandmother Gloria Wilbur and then taking her to Kentucky where he raped and killed her.
In its decision, the high court said the defense lawyers failed to conduct an adequate investigation, and consequently did not know Sears had been exposed to a physically abusive relationship by his parents and had been sexually abused and inappropriately disciplined. Moreover, Sears had suffered such significant frontal lobe brain damage that one expert determined he was among the "most impaired individuals in the population."
Such evidence might not have endeared Sears to jurors, "but it might well have helped the jury understand Sears and his horrendous acts -- especially in light of his purportedly stable upbringing," the decision said.
The court returned the case with instructions that a court properly follow U.S. Supreme Court precedent in deciding whether Sears' lawyers failed to provide a constitutionally effective counsel. Atlanta lawyer Bob Edwards, who represented Sears on appeal, said, "We're very, very grateful for the court's decision."
Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented, saying it was unlikely the new mitigation evidence "would have persuaded a jury to change its mind about the death sentence for this brutal rape-murder." Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito said they would not have accepted Sears' appeal.
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