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High court rejects killer's bid for new trial

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Florida death row inmate should not get a new trial even though his lawyer conceded the man’s guilt without his explicit consent.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Florida death row inmate should not get a new trial even though his lawyer conceded the man’s guilt without his explicit consent.

The 8-0 ruling sets aside a Florida Supreme Court decision in favor of Joe Elton Nixon. He was convicted in the 1984 murder of a woman he met at a Tallahassee mall.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who did not attend oral arguments for the case in November, did not take part in the decision.

Florida court overturned
At issue was the court-appointed attorney’s decision to admit at trial that Nixon was responsible for the victim’s “horrible, horrible death” in hopes that his candor would persuade the jury not to impose the death penalty. The state court said that deprived Nixon of his Sixth Amendment right to a vigorous trial defense.

In an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court said it would not second-guess the attorney’s trial strategy, which they called “reasonable.” Nixon had several opportunities to object when his lawyer told him of the strategy but didn’t, she said.

“When counsel informs the defendant of the strategy counsel believes to be in the defendant’s best interest and the defendant is unresponsive, counsel’s strategic choice is not impeded by any blanket rule demanding the defendant’s explicit consent,” Ginsburg wrote.

Florida prosecutors say Nixon tied Jeanne Bickner, a 38-year-old state worker, to trees with jumper cables and set her on fire. Facing substantial evidence against Nixon, his lawyer offered unsuccessfully to plea-bargain for life imprisonment before deciding to concede the man’s guilt at the beginning of trial.

In a 5-2 decision last year, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new trial after finding the lawyer did not effectively represent Nixon and that the defendant did not agree to the lawyer’s strategy.

The case is Florida v. Nixon, 03-931.

Ruling in second capital case
In another capital case considered Monday, the Supreme Court refused to review the appeal of a Texas death row inmate convicted of murdering a robbery victim nearly 20 years ago.

The Supreme Court had previously voted twice, most recently in a 5-4 order last month, to stay Troy Kunkle’s execution while his attorneys filed appeals. His attorneys had argued that Kunkle’s drug and alcohol abuse history was not properly considered as mitigating evidence at trial.

Justices declined Monday to accept the appeal, allowing Kunkle’s scheduled execution to proceed.

In a concurring opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that he had initially agreed to a stay because justices believed they had authority to review the case. However, upon closer review, justices realized the appeal was based solely on state law.

“That result is regrettable because it seems plain that Kunkle’s sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution,” Stevens wrote.

Victim had $13
Kunkle, 38, and several friends were high on drugs and beer and looking for someone to rob when they offered Stephen Horton, 31, a ride home Aug. 11, 1984. Kunkle, then 18, shot Horton in the back of the head with a pistol; the victim had $13 in his wallet.

Three companions received prison terms ranging from 30 years to life.

Defense lawyers said Kunkle was raised in a troubled home and left mentally scarred by parents who had been treated for depression.

The case is Kunkle v. Texas, 04-7271.

In other action Monday, the court:

  • Refused to clarify when police can use deadly force to stop fleeing criminal suspects but said a lower court got it wrong in allowing a lawsuit against an officer in Washington state who shot a burglary suspect. Instead, the court issued an unsigned opinion that found only that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco erred in ruling that the officer, Rochelle Brosseau, clearly violated the suspect’s constitutional rights.
  • Put restrictions on companies that want to voluntarily clean up their polluted land and sue former owners to share the costs. The court ruled 7-2 against a company that in 1981 bought land in Texas that had been used for aircraft engine maintenance businesses and then went to court to recover some of the $5 million it spent cleaning up pollution there. The justices said the company improperly tried to use the Superfund law to sue because the government had not demanded that the cleanup be done.
  • Ruled that police have authority to arrest suspects on charges that later fall apart, so long as officers had a second, valid reason for the detention. The 8-0 ruling set aside a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Jerome Alford. Two Washington State Patrol officers had arrested him for tape recording their conversation during a traffic stop in November 1997. During the traffic stop, Alford told the officers he had case law showing the taping was legal, but police arrested him anyway partly for separate reasons, which they did not tell him, that he appeared to be impersonating a police officer.