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King v. Puckett

decided as corrected: August 25, 1993.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. D.C. DOCKET NUMBER EC87-126-S-D. JUDGE L. T. Senter, Jr.

Before Jones, Duhe, and Wiener, Circuit Judges.

Author: Wiener

WIENER, Circuit Judge.

In this petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Petitioner-Appellant Mack Arthur King appeals the district court's denial of his petition, challenging, inter alia, the constitutionality of the jury instruction, which informed the jury -- without limiting instruction -- that the "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel" nature of the murder was an aggravating factor for consideration in determining whether the death penalty should be imposed. Based on subsequent jurisprudential developments which clearly state that such an unlimited instruction is unconstitutional and may be challenged notwithstanding a defendant's failure to object at trial or on direct appeal, we remand to the district court with directions to issue the writ of habeas corpus within a reasonable time unless the state initiates appropriate proceedings.



In the morning of August 3rd, 1980, Mrs. Lelia Patterson, an 84 year old widow, was discovered dead in her bathtub. An autopsy revealed that Mrs. Patterson had been struck on the head, strangled, and drowned. The pathologist could not determine the precise sequence of these events, and he testified that death could be attributed either to the blow, the strangulation, or the drowning. Finger and palm prints found on file folders located in the house led the police to suspect King.

A search of King's residence uncovered articles belonging to Mrs. Patterson. In a subsequent search, the police discovered blood-spattered pants, which, according to King's girlfriend, King was wearing on August 2nd and 3rd and which he washed himself, refusing to let his girlfriend wash them as was customary. Testing disclosed that the blood on the pants was human, although the blood type was indeterminable.

In his first statement to the police, King denied that he had been at the house on the day of the murder. After police confronted him with the stolen items, he admitted that he had burglarized the home on August 2nd. He denied, however, any involvement in the murder. Rather, he stated that he was accompanied by Willie Porter, his uncle, who remained outside while King burglarized the home. King claimed that, as he was leaving, he saw Porter, who had been drinking, enter Mrs. Patterson's home.

King was charged with capital murder, and Joe O. Sams, Jr., who had represented King in an earlier burglary charge, was appointed to represent him. Sams was assisted by a recent law school graduate Thomas L. Kesler and a legal intern, Tammy Lynn Woolbright. Kesler interviewed King on two occasions prior to trial. He determined that King was "slow" and "dull-witted." Based on this determination, as well as Sams' prior experience with King, Sams filed a motion with the trial court seeking a mental examination for King. The court granted the motion, committing King for a mental examination to determine: (1) his level of intelligence; (2) his ability to comprehend the gravity of the charges; (3) his ability to assist in his defense; (4) the standard of conduct that King would likely exhibit during trial; and (5) his competency to stand trial.

The state hospital examined King and the staff announced in a one-paragraph report "that the patient was without psychosis, competent to stand trial and responsible for his actions at the time of the alleged crime." No finding on the other points was made, and none was requested either by King's attorneys or the court.

Despite King's protestations of innocence, he was convicted of capital murder. During the trial, his attorneys did not present any witnesses, relying solely on the cross-examination of the state's witnesses. King did not testify. On appeal, his attorneys emphasize that King, "then a 21-year old black man, was tried for the murder of a white woman before an all-white jury, a white Judge, and a white prosecutor."

After King's conviction, the court instructed the jury to weigh the aggravating factors against the mitigating factors presented in determining whether the death penalty should be imposed. The jury considered two aggravating factors: that the murder was committed in the course of a felony and that the murder was committed in an "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel manner." No mitigating factors were presented. Within a short period, the jury returned a sentence of death.

King's conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Mississippi Supreme Court.*fn1 Likewise, his motion for post-conviction relief, then known as a petition for writ of error coram nobis, was denied without prejudice.*fn2 The supreme court ruled that certain of his claims were procedurally barred because they had not been raised on direct appeal. Included among these claims was a constitutional challenge to the "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel" aggravating factor.

King was allowed, however, to refile his request regarding his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Acting on this second petition, the supreme court ordered an evidentiary hearing for the ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Attorney Sams explained that his decisions not to present character witnesses and not to follow up on evidence of King's diminished mental capacity were tactical. The state circuit court conducted the hearing and concluded that "counsel's representation during the sentencing phase of the trial was competent."

King next sought relief in federal district court on a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court reviewed the ineffective assistance of counsel claim, concluding that the alleged deficiencies were tactical decisions. Important for this appeal, however, the district court determined, as did the Mississippi Supreme Court, that most of ...

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