In an unexpected and widely overlooked decision, the Supreme Court has made it easier for death-row inmates to appeal their cases if their lawyers were incompetent.

Last week’s 7-to-2 ruling, which overturned an inmate’s death penalty, holds particular significance in California, which has more than 600 men and women on death row, far more than any other state and about one-sixth of the nation’s death-row population. Nearly a third of California inmates awaiting execution are from L.A. County.

One condemned inmate who could benefit is Blufford Hayes Jr., convicted of stabbing Vinod “Pete” Patel to death in a Stockton motel room while robbing him of $23 and cigarettes in 1980. Hayes appealed his conviction, partly on grounds that the jury was not informed about his troubled childhood, chemical dependencies and educational disabilities. In fact, the entire penalty phase of his trial lasted just 22 minutes, according to David Senior, Hayes’ current attorney.

Last August, a three-member panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Hayes’ appeal. He appealed again for review by a larger panel of judges. The 9th Circuit reportedly held off on deciding whether to grant that appeal pending the Supreme Court decision rendered last week.

Defense attorneys are hailing the Supreme Court’s ruling as an important step in improving the notoriously slipshod quality of representation in capital punishment cases. They also hope it will increase the chances of winning appeals on claims of inadequate counsel.

The court’s ruling dealt with the case of Kevin Wiggins, a 27-year-old house painter convicted of the 1988 robbing and drowning of 77-year-old Florence Lacs in her suburban Maryland apartment. No physical evidence linked Wiggins to the crime, but he had been working in Lacs’ home shortly before the murder.

The court’s decision does not reverse the conviction of Wiggins, who maintains his innocence. Nor does it guarantee that he will be ultimately spared the death penalty. What it does provide is a new sentencing hearing before a new jury in Baltimore County. That jury will undoubtedly hear in great detail about a childhood that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in writing for the majority, called “excruciating,” “bleak” and “sordid.”

It was the failure of Wiggins’ attorneys to investigate the details of this childhood with the jury that led the nation’s highest court to find that his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial had been violated.

From at least age 6, Wiggins suffered severe physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his mother and a series of foster parents and guardians. In one of the homes where he was placed, he was molested and raped by his foster father. His mother left Wiggins and his siblings for days without food and once held his hand over an open flame. His IQ tested at 79, placing him in the borderline-retarded range. He had no previous record of violent behavior.

For anyone with a passing knowledge of capital cases, the gruesome details of Wiggins’ life are sadly familiar. So much so that prosecutors believe sharing such details with juries will have little effect on the outcome of capital trials. “You can pick up any case, you can focus on almost anybody, and they didn’t have a perfect upbringing,” said David LaBahn, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association. “The trials and tribulations of life are a part of growing up.”

Nonetheless, the ruling may serve as partial vindication for the 9th Circuit, widely considered the nation’s most liberal appellate court. In the past two years, the court, which covers California and eight other states, issued 12 rulings either reversing a death sentence or upholding such a reversal. Eleven were from California. In those cases, ineffective counsel was a frequent refrain. The most recent reversal came on June 27, one day after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

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