WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, nearing the end of a term marked by a host of second-guess rulings on death penalty sentences, concluded yesterday that the attorney for a man convicted of killing a tavern owner had done sloppy work.
In a 5-4 decision, justices ruled in the 17-year-old murder case that the lawyer for Ronald Rompilla had not properly investigated possible evidence of mental retardation, and they ordered a new trial for the defendant.
Rompilla, now 56, was convicted of robbing, stabbing, and setting on fire a tavern owner in Allentown, Pa., in 1988. It was the second time in a week that the high court overturned a death row sentence, citing an inadequate trial.
In his appeal, Rompilla argued that public defenders were wrong when they failed to review records showing mitigating evidence of mental retardation and a traumatic upbringing, even after prosecutors warned that they planned to use the documents against him.
Writing for the majority, Justice David H. Souter sided with the defendant.
''We hold that even when a capital defendant's family members and the defendant himself have suggested that no mitigating evidence is available, his lawyer is bound to make reasonable efforts to obtain and review material that counsel knows the prosecution will probably rely on," Souter wrote.
The ruling is a defeat for death penalty advocates, who have pushed for less federal court review of capital trials. Under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the conservative-leaning court has generally agreed, declining to overturn death sentences except when they are ''objectively unreasonable" given all the evidence at trial.
In a biting dissent, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia was right to uphold a state ruling that the attorney representation was adequate. He reasoned that Rompilla's attorneys had reasonably relied on testimony from mental health specialists and family members.
The majority ruling unreasonably imposes a requirement on cash-strapped attorneys to pore through reams of documents in death penalty cases, even after conducting scores of interviews, for fear of missing something marginally useful, Kennedy said.
''We have reminded federal courts often of the need to show the requisite level of deference to state court judgments," Kennedy wrote. ''By ignoring our admonition today, the court adopts a do-as-we-say, not-as-we do approach to federal habeas review."
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Reagan appointee, was the swing voter in the case. She filed a separate opinion emphasizing that her conclusion was based on the remarkable circumstances of Rompilla's case, in which attorneys failed to follow up on potential leads after the prosecutor tipped them off.
''Today's decision simply applies our long-standing case-by-case approach to determining whether an attorney's performance was unconstitutionally deficient," O'Connor wrote. ''The attorneys' failure to obtain and review the case file from their client's prior conviction did not meet standards of reasonable professional judgment."
The ruling, the last of the Supreme Court's most significant death penalty cases this term, could cap a bit of an anticlimatic end to Rehnquist's 33-year tenure career in the event he decides to retire. Since joining the court in 1972, Rehnquist has worked to preserve capital punishment.
Rehnquist, who is ailing from thyroid cancer, joined Kennedy's dissent without additional comment.
Last week, the Supreme Court had shown a willingness to intervene in death penalty cases, voting, 6-3, to overturn the conviction of death row inmate Thomas Miller-El, who said Texas prosecutors unfairly stacked his jury with whites.
And earlier this year, the court ruled, 5-4, that it was unconstitutional to execute juvenile killers, ending a practice in 19 states. That ruling has been criticized by some members of Congress for ignoring the will of state legislatures who favor capital punishment.
Yesterday's case is Rompilla v. Beard, 04-5462.