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Six years ago, New York attorney John Howley found himself about as far away from the city as one can get: on the backroads of rural Alabama, working on the appellate case of a death row inmate. “We were going on these dirt roads to literally shacks in the middle of nowhere knocking on doors,” Howley, a partner at New York’s Kaye Scholer, said about his and an associate’s early work on the capital case. “Two white people from New York in a rural black community in Alabama knocking on doors, asking people ‘Does so and so live here?’ and then going back on roads that didn’t even have street signs,” he said. Over the next several days, the two interviewed the inmate’s former gym and primary school teachers, who recalled that he was always in special education classes because of his low IQ. Six years, 8,343 hours Howley had handled about nine death row cases before-including several in Alabama. So he was not shocked to learn that his client’s trial counsel had not presented evidence of his mental disability to the jury. That early trip to Alabama was just the start. After six years and 8,343 hours of work tallied by Howley and 10 associates, progress was finally made in the case of the inmate with the unlikely name of Holly Wood. On Nov. 20, U.S. District Judge W. Harold Albritton of the Middle District of Alabama in Montgomery granted in part the habeas petition of Wood, saying his trial counsel should have told the jury that an expert found him at most within “borderline range of intellectual functioning” and that he read on a third-grade level. Albritton gave the state 90 days to vacate Wood’s sentence and resentence him to life without parole or conduct a new sentencing hearing. Wood v. Allen, No. 2:04-cv-509 (M.D. Ala.). The judge dismissed other claims, including those based on procedural issues and on violation of the Sixth Amendment. The state has filed a notice of appeal with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case raises the issue of mental disability among death row inmates, which the U.S. Supreme Court has addressed in recent years and prompted new guidelines from the American Bar Association. Howley said that Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, urgently recommended Wood’s case. “They completely ignored this evidence that suggested he might be mentally retarded,” Howley said. “When we went down to do our investigation, it literally came out of the woodwork.” ‘A real crisis’ Stevenson, who is also a professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law, said his students initially gathered facts on Wood’s case after his conviction because he was facing an appeals deadline. They approached Kaye Scholer, since it did pro bono work for death row inmates before, he said. “There is a real crisis in Alabama,” Stevenson said. “People on death row are literally dying for legal assistance.” Wood, a 46-year-old black Alabama man, was convicted in 1994 of murdering his former girlfriend after breaking into her home and shooting her while she was asleep. Court-appointed lawyers defending Alabama’s death row prisoners must have at least five years of experience, which two of Wood’s three lawyers had. But the lawyer who handled the sentencing phase had less than one year of experience. At one point, the attorney wrote that he did not have “anyone with whom to discuss the case, including the two other attorneys,” according to Albritton’s decision. Signs of a leader Clay Crenshaw, an assistant attorney general in Alabama, noted that the counsel made a strategic decision not to discuss Wood’s mental state because they presented evidence that he was a leader who got a job and helped provide for his siblings after his father died. “It would certainly be inconsistent with this very strong showing that he took over and stepped up in his household,” Crenshaw said. Alabama has 193 death row inmates, the seventh highest among the nation’s 38 death-penalty states, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that opposes capital punishment. The state is the only one with a sizable death row prisoner population that has a $1,000 payment cap for lawyers appointed to represent death row inmates during post-conviction review, Stevenson said.

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