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Court Rejects Death Row Appeal Based on Poor Representation

In a 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on May 28, 2002, refused to overturn a death sentence because of poor performance by the defendant's lawyer. The court held that Tennessee could proceed with its sentence despite the fact that the attorney for the defendant, Gary Bradford Cone, failed to make a final appeal for life imprisonment at his sentencing.

Cone was convicted of murdering an elderly couple after a two day crime spree in 1980 that included a robbery and two other shootings. A Vietnam veteran, Cone pleaded not guilty for reasons of insanity, which were tied to his war experience and to extensive drug use. The jury found him guilty on all charges. The conviction and death sentence were later upheld by the State Supreme Court.

In rendering its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed lower court rulings that the case did not violate competency standards established by Strickland v. Washington. Strickland requires showing that the performance of the defendant's attorney was unreasonably poor and that there is a significant probability that the trial's outcome would have been different but for the attorney's poor performance. The high court found that the attorney's failure to seek life imprisonment did not meet that standard.

The case was Bell v. Cone (No. 01-400).

-- 5/28/02

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