updated 6/20/2005 11:46:47 AM ET 2005-06-20T15:46:47

The Supreme Court on Monday ordered a new trial for a Pennsylvania death row inmate in a 17-year-old murder case, ruling that his attorney was sloppy in failing to investigate possible evidence of mental retardation.

In a 5-4 decision, justices ruled in favor of Ronald Rompilla, 56, who was convicted of robbing, stabbing and setting on fire a tavern owner in Allentown, Pa., in 1988. It was the second time in a week that the high court overturned a death row sentence, citing an inadequate trial.

In his appeal, Rompilla argued that public defenders were wrong when they failed to review records showing mitigating evidence of mental retardation and a traumatic upbringing, even after prosecutors gave warning they planned to use the documents against him.

Writing for the majority, Justice David H. Souter agreed.

“We hold that even when a capital defendant’s family members and the defendant himself have suggested that no mitigating evidence is available, his lawyer is bound to make reasonable efforts to obtain and review material that counsel knows the prosecution will probably rely on,” Souter wrote.

In other decisions on Monday:

  • The court declined to consider whether hundreds of criminals who were sentenced prior to a landmark ruling on federal sentencing guidelines should receive reduced prison time. Without comment, justices let stand a lower court ruling against Vladimir Rodriguez, a Florida man who challenged a nine-year drug sentence he received under mandatory guidelines that the Supreme Court subsequently threw out as unconstitutional.
  • The court declined to consider whether cities can deny a police officer’s request for compensatory time off solely to avoid paying overtime to substitute officers. Without comment, justices let stand a lower court ruling ordering the compensation. The Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association said the city’s refusal to grant the time off violated the rights of officers under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

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