Judge Clarence Cooper, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia
Judge Clarence Cooper, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia (John Disney/Daily Report)

Lawrence Joseph Jefferson’s 1985 death penalty sentence for years has troubled federal judges who have reviewed the case.

Filed on April 23, 1996, it is the oldest case on U.S. District Senior Judge Clarence Cooper’s docket—one he kept long after he became a senior judge in February 2009.

Ten years ago, Cooper vacated Jefferson’s death sentence for the first time. On April 10, 2017, Cooper vacated Jefferson’s death sentence once again. In a 71-page opinion, Cooper reaffirmed the position he took a decade ago that Jefferson’s trial counsel—one of whom is now a Cobb County Superior Court judge—had been constitutionally ineffective.

In the intervening decade, Cooper’s original ruling was reversed by a split panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The ruling included a strong dissent on Jefferson’s behalf by U.S. Circuit Judge Edward Carnes, who as an assistant attorney general in Alabama had built a reputation repeatedly and successfully defending that state’s death penalty.

The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently took up the case, filed one day before the enactment of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which greatly narrowed federal judges’ authority to grant habeas petitions. In 2010, the high court vacated the Eleventh Circuit ruling and remanded the case for a determination as to whether the state court’s habeas findings deserved the presumption that they were full and fair.

In his recent ruling, Cooper noted that the judge who denied Jefferson’s state habeas petition, Waycross Circuit Superior Court Judge Joseph B. Newton, had never handled a habeas corpus petition in a capital case. Newton died in 2000 while Jefferson’s federal appeal was still pending.

Cobb County Superior Court Judge Stephen Schuster, who defended Jefferson, said the death penalty shouldn’t have been sought.”Whether I am at fault or not, I am very comfortable with being the pretext for getting Lawrence Jefferson off Death Row,” he said.

In his new order, Cooper said that additional evidence presented at a 2014 evidentiary hearing he convened after the case was remanded by the Supreme Court bolstered his earlier finding of ineffective counsel. He said the two lawyers, Schuster and Marietta attorney Marc Cella, failed to properly investigate evidence that Jefferson had suffered from long-term brain damage after he was run over by a car as a toddler, which could have affected his impulse control. Such evidence, he said, could have been presented to the jury as a mitigating circumstance that might have warranted a life sentence rather than death. A psychologist who examined him at the behest of Jefferson’s defense team also stated that a neuropsychological evaluation to rule out brain damage would be worthwhile, but the attorneys never followed up.

A Cobb County jury convicted Jefferson in 1986 of robbing Edward Taulbee, his supervisor and close friend, and bludgeoning him to death with a log. The jury sentenced him to death. Schuster said that Jefferson “always denied his involvement. He has vehemently insisted on his innocence.” He and his co-counsel, he said, “developed our trial strategy accordingly and focused on alternative perpetrators.”

Cooper’s order also included a list of other problems stemming from Newton’s review of Jefferson’s case. Newton, he said, had denied Jefferson’s petition after having his law clerk solicit a proposed order ex-parte from the assistant state attorney general. He did so without notifying Jefferson’s appellate counsel or giving them an opportunity to submit their own proposed order, and he apparently gave no guidance to the assistant state attorney other than that Jefferson’s petition should be denied.

Cooper said that Newton appeared to have adopted the assistant state attorney general’s order verbatim — including 21 misspellings, grammatical errors and other inaccuracies as well as a reference to an affidavit that was never submitted in the case. Cooper concluded that Newton may never have read the order his law clerk had solicited.

Cooper summarized subsequent neurological testing by several physicians, including significant evidence that Jefferson may have sustained permanent brain damage that could have caused significant impairment, including problems with self-control, impulsivity and poor judgement.

“Admittedly not mental health experts themselves, [Jefferson's] trial counsel unfathomably failed to act upon the recommendation of the individual they hired to provide opinions and recommendations based on his mental health expertise,” Cooper wrote. “By not pursuing neuropsychological testing, [Jefferson's] trial counsel essentially decided to ignore information about which they were aware that suggested a possible brain injury or some other mental impairment…. Simply put, trial counsel in this case had no idea of, and did nothing to learn about, the significance of developing mental health testimony and evidence for the penalty phase of a capital trial, even if such testimony and evidence would not have assisted mental-health-based claims at the guilt-innocence phase of the trial.”

Cooper also cited liberally from Carnes’ dissent, in which Carnes’ repeatedly rebuked Jefferson’s trial counsel .

“The jury was not told that he was hospitalized for weeks,” wrote Carnes. “That the trauma he suffered permanently misshaped his head, leaving him with a cranial indentation and an abnormally enlarged skull caused by the pressure of cerebrospinal fluid. That it resulted in frontal lobe and neurological damage, which had a profound a lifelong impact on his behavior. That it caused learning disabilities, emotional instability, diminished impulse control, and intermittent outbursts of rage. That it led to impaired judgment and paranoia. That the neurological damage resulting from the head injury deprived him of a normal ability to premeditate, deliberate, distinguish right from wrong, and act rationally. That he had substantially limited or no control over the abnormal behavior caused by the brain damage he suffered.

“As far as the jury knew, Jefferson did not suffer from brain damage or neurological impairment; he had no organic disorders or pathologies; his emotional stability, impulse control, and judgment were perfectly normal; he could premeditate, deliberate, distinguish right from wrong, and act rationally as easily as the next person. The jury had that misleading picture of Jefferson’s moral culpability because the most important mitigating circumstances were withheld from it.”

The decision by Jefferson’s trial counsel, Carnes continued, “was not based on strategy but on ignorance, not only about whether Jefferson was brain-damaged but also about how it might affect his behavior…. Making decisions based on ignorance is not professionally reasonable.”

Cooper’s April order echoed Carnes’ 2009 dissent.

“No reasonable lawyer in counsel’s position at the time,” Cooper concluded, “would have decided not to have [Jefferson] tested for brain damage.” And with that additional mitigating evidence, Cooper said, “there is a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have found the mental health evidence presented compelling enough to vote against death.”

Schuster said that if the District Court’s intention was “to slow walk” the habeas corpus, he has been successful. “However, how fair has this been for Lawrence Jefferson or Ed Taulbee?” he asked. “It is time for this to end. Justice is no longer being served.”