Yokamon Hearn is scheduled to be executed by Texas on Wednesday, July 18, even though his trial and appeals lawyers never discovered – and no judge or jury ever considered – compelling life history evidence that would have explained why he came to be charged with capital murder and why he should have been sentenced to life in prison rather than death.
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has found that cases such as Yokamon Hearn's should get evidentiary review, the Fifth Circuit once again is saying that U.S. Supreme Court precedent doesn't apply to Texas.
The Fifth Circuit has just denied Hearn's petition for review. The Order is available in Adobe .pdf format.
As I've noted before, problems with Texas' jury charge in death penalty cases were first ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1989 case Penry v. Lynaugh, and subsequently, in Penry v. Johnson. The Court held that juries must be able to consider all mitigating evidence that might lead them to issue a life sentence rather than a death sentence. Texas' 1975 death penalty law did not allow jurors to do that.
Only after the Supreme Court intervened in the Abdul-Kabrir and Tennard cases did that dark chapter of Texas history close. It is critically important that the Supreme Court intervene in this case to determine decisively whether its 2012 decision in Martinez v. Ryan applies to Texas.
In Martinez, the Court held that prisoners who have compelling claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, can have those claims heard even if an ineffective state habeas lawyer's failure to raise those claims would have otherwise barred them from being heard in federal court.
A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit, however, recently decided that Martinez does not apply to Texas, in the case of Ibarra v. Thaler, thereby preventing prisoners from the country's most active death penalty state from having access to Martinez's protections. This is the ruling that Yokamon Hearn is attempting to challenge.
The Failures of Yokamon Hearn's Trial
Hearn was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder and kidnapping of Frank Meziere in Dallas. Pleadings show that his trial counsel conducted virtually no investigation into Hearn's life history, an essential part of any capital case. The jury that sentenced Hearn to die did not know that:
- Mr. Hearn's parents were severely impaired and neglected him throughout childhood;
- His mother's alcoholism was so severe that she drank to the point of passing out during her pregnancy with Mr. Hearn;
- Mr. Hearn has been diagnosed with a disabling condition known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome;
- His mother also suffered from serious mental health problems throughout Mr. Hearn's life;·
- His father suffered from cognitive deficits and had a history of incarceration for violent offenses.
As a result of his parents' utter inability to meet his needs, Hearn suffered from mental health problems as a child. At the age of ten, his suicidal thoughts resulted in emergency care. Testing shows that he suffers from brain damage. All of these facts were discovered in investigations long after Mr. Hearn’s trial and his state and federal habeas proceedings were concluded. The jury that sentenced him heard none of this evidence.
Yokamon Hearn's First Postconviction Proceedings
After he was sentenced to death, new lawyers were appointed to represent Hearn on his post-conviction appeals. At that point, his new lawyers should have discovered and brought Hearn's life history evidence to the courts' attention, but they did not. They failed to do any investigation or raise any claim about trial counsel’s ineffective assistance. Again, a critical failure of an essential part of the habeas attorney's role in a capital case's post-conviction review.
As a result, Mr. Hearn now suffers from what the Atlantic columnist Andrew Cohen recently described as "ineffective assistance of counsel squared." If you haven't read his must-read column, I hope you'll do so now.
In March of this year in Martinez v. Ryan, the Supreme Court recognized for the first time that the situation presented in cases like Hearn's requires that courts review the case in depth. The Supreme Court called this a matter of fundamental fairness.
What changed with Martinez is that the Supreme Court recognized that prosecutors could no longer use procedural rules to bar federal court inquiries into bad lawyering in capital cases. Because of the Supreme Court's Martinez decision, Hearn is seeking federal court review of his ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim for the first time.
Unless the Supreme Court intervenes, Mr. Hearn will be executed with no review of his claim that trial counsel were ineffective. His Petition for Writ of Certiorari is available in Adobe .pdf format.