The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Monday ratified a dubious conviction against a death row inmate whose state trial judge once didn’t even bother to cross off the word ”proposed” when he signed a lengthy written order prepared for him hours earlier by an attorney handling the case on behalf of Alabama prosecutors. It isn’t even clear from the record whether that hapless judge in 1999 ever bothered to read the order that today helps doom Doyle Lee Hamm. What is clear is that the federal appeals court reviewing the matter now brushed it off in a footnote that read:
…we take this opportunity to once again strongly criticize the practice of trial courts’ uncritical wholesale adoption of the proposed orders or opinions submitted by a prevailing party.
What also is clear is that the 11th Circuit, after “strongly criticizing” what had occurred in Hamm’s case, then proceeded to give great deference to the findings of that state judge they just had criticized, which is to say gave great deference to the partisan conclusions of the prosecutor who had written the judge’s order for him. The federal appeals court Monday was almost as uncritical in relying upon that tainted order (and the state appeals that followed it) as was the judge who 16 years ago was too busy (or too lazy) to write up his own order with a man’s life on the line.
When I first came across this case last fall (here is the link to my earlier piece) I was astounded by the cavalier nature of the proceedings that had led to Hamm’s conviction. There are legitimate legal and factual questions in this case about the effectiveness of Hamm’s trial attorney, who put on a 19-minute mitigation case. There are honest questions about Hamm’s intellectual disability, memorialized at an early age by an IQ of 66. There even are important questions about jury unanimity; despite all the flaws in the defense case one juror refused to vote for death for Hamm.
But there is no reason to think that all of these issues have ever been fully and fairly evaluated by the courts. The appeals courts of Alabama long ago should have rejected the very idea of a judicial order in a capital case that was drafted by a state attorney and rubber-stamped by his judge hours after it was filed. You don’t need to be a judge, or a lawyer, or a scholar, to understand why that order is presumptively tainted. Instead, however, those courts for 15 have endorsed that order, applying to it a patina of precedential respectability that the federal courts now have embraced.
Accountability is a theme we hear a lot about in criminal justice these days. There is a push to make prosecutors more accountable for the misconduct they engage in prior to and after trials. There is a push to hold prison and jail officials more accountable for the health and safety of inmates. There is a push to make the police more accountable for what happened on their beat. There is even is a push to make experts more accountable for the conclusions they reach in criminal cases, conclusions that can ruin the lives of defendants.
The one group in criminal justice that largely has avoided a wave of scrutiny for its lack of accountability is the judiciary. A bedrock concept of our justice systems is that judges ultimately police themselves through the appellate process, with flawed or manifest unjust rulings or verdicts being “fixed” on appeal. The reality is that this happens so rarely in our justice systems that countless men and women linger in prison for decades, or longer, following wrongful convictions that the courts cannot or will not overturn for a variety of technical reasons that have nothing to do with getting to the truth of the matter.
Reasonable people could argue over whether Doyle Hamm deserved to have a new trial or a new penalty hearing. But no reasonable person would argue that his jury heard everything it should have heard about his past or that Hamm received a full and fair adjudication from that Alabama trial judge. The fact that the 11th Circuit Monday countenanced that injustice, in the name of “deference” to the very court system that screwed up, is a vivid example of the hollowness of our rule of law. There is no true accountability. There is instead sterile formalism hiding behind hoary legal principles.
The ruling comes at a time when lawyers, politicians, and others are chronicling, at last, the great harm the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act has caused since President Clinton signed it into law in 1996. The 11th Circuit’s ruling in a good example of that harm. The federal appeals judges should not have deferred to a state court process that was patently flawed. Those federal judges should have tossed this case back for a hearing before a judge who, at a minimum, would be willing to write his own opinions. Surely that is not too much to ask in a capital case, is it?