MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against an Alabama inmate whose lawyers argued that his trial counsel should have done more to try to show he is intellectually disabled and therefore he should be spared a death sentence.
In an unsigned 6-3 opinion, the conservative majority on Friday reversed an 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals finding and said that a state court had correctly rejected claims that Matthew Reeves had ineffective counsel at trial because they did not hire a neuropsychologist to present evidence he is intellectually disabled.
The three liberal justices dissented in the opinion. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, said the majority’s decision continues a “troubling trend in which this Court strains to reverse summarily any grants of relief to those facing execution.”
The majority said the 11th Circuit had misinterpreted the state court’s decision as applying a “blanket rule” that inmates will lose a claim of ineffective counsel if they don’t put their attorneys on the stand to be questioned about the decisions made at trial.
Instead, the state court made an analysis of Reeves’ case, they ruled.
In the state court proceeding, a defense expert testified Reeves was intellectually disabled, based on the theory that intelligence test scores get inflated over time and Reeves’ score should be adjusted downward into the 60s, justices wrote. A state expert testified Reeves was not intellectually disabled and noted that Reeves had a leadership role in a drug-dealing group and earned as much as $2,000 a week, according to the opinion.
Reeves was convicted of killing Willie Johnson in 1996 after Johnson towed Reeves’ broken-down car back to the city.
“In payment for this act of kindness, Reeves murdered Johnson, stole his money, and mocked his dying spasms,” justices wrote in the majority opinion.
Sotomayor in her dissent said the majority opinion was partly based on speculation about the strategy of the defense team.
“This Court has shown no such interest in cases in which defendants seek relief based on compelling showings that their constitutional rights were violated,” Sotomayor wrote.