U.S. Supreme Court remands case of Terence Andrus based on woefully inadequate legal representation

On Monday, June 8, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued a per curiam in response to a petition for writ of certiorari filed on behalf of Terence Tremaine Andrus, who was convicted and sentenced to death in Fort Bend County in 2012.  The order finds that his trial counsel performed deficiently in failing to present or even investigate readily available mitigating evidence. The case has been sent back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for reconsideration of his quest for habeas relief.

Here’s a statement from Gretchen Sween, the attorney who represents Mr. Andrus in this matter, in response to the Court’s order: 

“‘Delight’ may be the wrong word. But the emotions I am feeling are best described that way—tethered to a strong dose of wonder and humility. That is, it is a privilege to witness the legal arc in this country bend closer toward justice for a client so poorly served by the system.”

–       Gretchen Sween, June 15, 2020

The Court’s order is available here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jIUY5mED3VIj85mPc6IamctPh9fHCR_0/view?usp=sharing

The Justices took pains to point out numerous examples of how Andrus’s trial attorney had failed his client. He neglected to investigate or present to the jury readily-available mitigating evidence of Andrus’s troubled upbringing, including his mother’s drug addiction and prostitution, his role as caretaker for his siblings when his mother would abandon her children, his own drug use, multiple suicide attempts and a diagnosis of psychosis.

Andrus filed his petition with SCOTUS in June 2019 after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) rejected a trial judge’s ruling that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel during his Itrial and therefore should receive a new punishment-phase trial. The CCA’s opinion did not explain its decision to reject the trial judge’s ruling or the recommendation that relief be granted. Nor did the CCA opinion discuss any of the evidence developed during Andrus’s post-conviction habeas proceeding, including a multi-week evidentiary hearing over which the Honorable James Shoemake had presided. The CCA’s opinion simply stated that Andrus had not satisfied the standard for proving an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim under Strickland v. Washington.

Under the standard described in the 1984 Strickland case, proving an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim requires evidence (1) that counsel’s performance was “deficient,” in that it was objectively unreasonable in light of the national professional norms that prevailed at the time of trial; and (2) that the defendant was “prejudiced” as a result of the deficient performance.

Andrus’s petition was supported by a group of former federal prosecutors who filed an amicus brief in the case. That brief emphasizes how important the right to adequate defense counsel is to the integrity of the adversarial system and how, when violations of defendants’ right to counsel go uncorrected, the adversarial system as a whole is harmed.

The State of Texas, represented in the appeal by the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office, opposed Andrus’s petition.

SCOTUS relisted the case over 20 times before an opinion issued on June 15, 2020.

Here’s some of the media coverage of the case:

Jurist: “Supreme Court finds constitutionally deficient counsel in Texas death penalty case” 

ABA Journal: “Defense lawyer who didn’t probe death-row client’s bad childhood was deficient, SCOTUS says”

Texas Tribune: “U.S. Supreme Court rules Texas death row inmate had an ineffective lawyer, orders new review”

San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle: “U.S. Supreme Court slams defense attorney’s work in Fort Bend death penalty case”