The U.S. Supreme Court has taken the rare step of reversing the lower courts in a death penalty case and, for all practical purposes, giving the defendant a chance to have his conviction and death sentence reviewed by the federal courts.
In 1999, Mark Christeson was convicted of and sentenced to death for committing three brutal murders. By 2014, the Missouri Supreme Court was about to set an execution date when Christeson's court-appointed lawyers contacted death penalty experts for help with a federal appeal. But by then, however, it was too late, way too late. Years earlier, the lawyers had missed the filing deadline for an appeal to the federal courts.
The death penalty experts who had been contacted then sought to replace the court-appointed lawyers, because the only possible argument for an appeal at that late date was that the court-appointed attorneys, by blowing the deadline, had failed to adequately represent their client. The original lawyers, however, refused to step aside, and the lower courts refused a request to substitute the new lawyers.
In an unsigned opinion Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the lower courts, telling them that the original court-appointed lawyers had a conflict of interest and could not have been expected to make a legal argument "which threaten[ed] their professional reputation and livelihood." Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.
Jennifer Merrigan, one of the new lawyers who will now be able to ask to be substituted as Christeson's lawyer, will also very likely get the chance to convince the federal courts that he was wrongly sentenced to death and perhaps even wrongly convicted. She contends that his court-appointed appellate lawyers took advantage of his low IQ and intentionally misled him about his prospects, even when the state Supreme Court was about to set an execution date.
"His lawyers never interviewed a single witness about his case," she says. "They never talked to a single doctor to look at his deficits. We will be investigating Mark's life. We will be investigating the crime. There were serious constitutional errors in his trial and those have never been listened to."