Monday, January 4, 2016

State ex rel. Strong v. Griffith

Opinion handed down June 7, 2015
        In Strong v. Griffith, the Supreme Court of Missouri made no exceptions to its death penalty requirements as they pertain to the mentally ill.  That case involved the examination of a writ of habeas corpus filed by Richard Strong, who was convicted and later sentenced to death for his actions in a heinous double murder.  Strong contended that at the time he committed the murders, he was mentally ill, and therefore he was unfit to be executed.  However, the court rejected Strong’s assertion, reasoning he was not entitled to the relief he sought.  Strong was mentally fit at the time of trial, so he was ineligible to be granted a stay of execution under Missouri Revised Statute Sections 552.020 and 552.030.  Additionally, Strong did not present evidence of any past mental illness during the penalty phase, and thus the court had no basis to review the death sentencing under Section 565.032.

I.  Facts and Holding
        Petitioner Richard Strong was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of his girlfriend and two-year-old daughter in 2003.[1]  Police officers followed up on a disconnected 911 call and met Mr. Strong at the door of his girlfriend’s home.[2]  At first, Strong asserted that his girlfriend and daughter were asleep inside, but when asked again of their whereabouts, Strong said his girlfriend was at work, and he had locked himself out of the house.[3]  At this time, the officers noticed Strong was heavily sweating, had dark stains on his jeans, and had blood covering his hands.[4]  When no one opened the door after Strong began knocking on it, the officers kicked the door in.[5]  In response, Strong fled the scene, was apprehended, and said to the officers, “You should have shot me, they’re both dead, I killed them.”[6]
        Inside the home, police discovered a horrific scene.  The murder weapon, a butcher knife, was found on the floor next to Strong’s girlfriend and two-year-old daughter.[7]  The bodies were riddled with slash and stab wounds: twenty-six total on Strong’s girlfriend and eleven on his daughter.[8]  Both bodies were disemboweled, and it appeared Strong had attempted to decapitate his daughter.[9]
        Strong was sentenced to death for the murders, and the Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed his conviction and sentence on direct appeal in 2004.[10]  The jury found that Strong committed both /;’’;lkmnjbvcxmurders, which were “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, or depravity of mind.”[11]  Strong was denied federal review of his punishment.[12] 
        Under Sections 522.020 and 522.030, Strong’s competency was evaluated before his trial.[13]  His evaluation report showed no signs or symptoms of mental illness, and Strong did not raise the issue of his mental health at any time subsequently during trial.[14]  However, Strong asserted in his post-conviction proceedings that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present the testimony of two family members and two experts regarding his prior mental condition.[15]  The court noted that Strong did not assert that his counsel was ineffective for failing to present a defense during the guilt phase or that Strong was not criminally liable by reason of mental disease or defect.[16]
        The court hearing Strong’s motion for ineffective assistance of counsel rejected his claims based on the four competency witnesses.[17]  The court found that counsel had reasonably investigated the stories of the family members and employed reasonable trial tactics in not retaining “biased,” “one-sided” experts who would have been of no benefit to Strong’s case.[18] 
II.  Legal Background
        There is no court decision in any jurisdiction that Strong was able to use as authority for his claim.[19]  Instead he presented scholarly articles and proposed, but not enacted, legislation supporting his position prohibiting the death penalty for individuals who had severe mental illness at the time of their crimes.[20]  The Supreme Court of the United States has held on several occasions that the defense of mental incompetency applies only if the prisoner can show current insanity.[21] 
III.  Instant Decision
        Strong’s claim was that, while he may currently be competent, he was severely mentally ill at the time he committed the murders of his girlfriend and daughter and therefore should not be executed.[22]  Strong argued that, like juveniles or the insane, a person suffering from severe mental illness at the time of a crime has “diminished personal responsibility” for his actions and therefore is not “extremely culpable.”[23]  Executing such individuals would thus violate the Fourteenth Amendment.[24]  In addition, Strong argued that it would violate the cruel and unusual punishment prohibitions of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 21 of the Missouri Constitution.[25]
        The court described the evidence Strong presented regarding his mental illness at the time of the crime as “anecdotal” in nature.[26]  In fact, Strong failed to support his claim of a mental illness or disorder with any affidavits or other exhibits.[27]  The reports Strong did furnish to the court all showed Strong had not exhibited signs, symptoms, or had ever had a diagnosis of severe mental illness.[28]
        The court determined that further inquiry into the evidence was not needed because, as a matter of law, Strong was not entitled to any relief.  Under Sections 552.020, 522.030, 565.03203(2), (6), a person cannot be convicted or sentenced if they lack “capacity to understand the proceedings against him.”[29]  Strong was not entitled to relief under these statutes because he did not assert he was not competent to stand trial.[30]
        Strong was also not entitled to relief under Section 552.030.1, because he did not present evidence of his mental illness as a mitigating circumstance during the penalty phase of trial.[31] The claim he raised was ineffective assistance of counsel, because his lawyers had not presented evidence of his mental condition at trial.[32]  However, because Strong lost on that point, the Supreme Court of Missouri refused to analyze that evidence, as such review could not be legally cognizable under his later habeas corpus claim.[33] 
IV.  Comment
        One can imagine a different set of circumstances in which the court may have declined to act so draconian in its application of the mental illness and death penalty statutes.  The evidence in this case seems overwhelming that Strong committed two brutal murders, lied to try to fool the police officers, and then attempted to flee the scene when his trickery failed.  These facts appear on their face to be the actions of, while not a sane man, in the sense of his decision to commit such atrocities, a competent and calculating individual.
        The court’s opinion leaves one with the feeling that it had decided not to strain itself in trying to find legal footing for Strong’s petition to land on.  There is barely any analysis of prior case law in the opinion.  If the petitioner appeared to be more clearly confused at the scene and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, one can envision this case coming out differently.  
 – Travis Braun        

[1] State ex rel. Strong v. Griffith, 462 S.W.3d 732, 734 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id. at 735.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id. at 734.  See also, State v. Strong, 142 S.W.3d 702 (Mo. 2004) (en banc).
[11] Strong, 462 S.W.3d at 735.
[12] Id. at 734.
[13] Id. at 735.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Id. at 737.
[20] Strong, 462 S.W.3d at 737.  The court noted the proposed legislation, but it did not discuss the substance of any of these sources in detail.
[21] Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, (1986) (prohibiting execution of those inmates currently suffering from mental illness); Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, (2002) (holding defendant in both penalty phases to be mentally incompetent and severely developmentally disabled); andRoper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 , 125 S.Ct. 1183 (2005) (rejecting the application of the death penalty to a juvenile).
[22] Strong, 462 S.W.3d at 736.  
[23] Id. at 737.
[24] Id.
[25] Id.
[26] Id.
[27] Id.
[28] Id.
[29] Id. at 738.
[30] Id.
[31] Id.
[32] Id.
[33] Id. at 738, 739.