What The Jury Didn’t Know About Jesse James Andrews Will Probably Kill Him
Aug. 12, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Jesse James Andrews never had it easy. His alcoholic parents separated when he was young, and he grew up in a poor, segregated part of Mobile, Alabama. He was raised by his grandparents and his aunt, along with his siblings and cousins. When his grandfather died, his personality changed. He acted out, and at 14 years of age, he ended up at “the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children.”
There, he endured “appalling” conditions, which included “beatings, brutality, inadequate conditions and sexual predators.” It was “a farming operation and a penal colony for children,” and it had exactly the same effect all penal colonies seem to have on the people forced to live in them. After getting out at age 16, it only took three months for Andrews to be involved in the attempted robbery and murder of a grocery store clerk. Back to prison he went.
His institutional homes for the next ten years weren’t much better. Conditions were “abysmal.” There was “severe overcrowding, racial segregation, substandard facilities, no separation of the tougher inmates from younger or smaller inmates, constant violence, the persistent threat of sexual assaults and the constant presence of sexual pressure, the availability and necessity of weapons by all inmates, and degrading conditions in disciplinary modules.” Andrews was beaten and sexually assaulted. He was a little guy. He was “rarely the instigator of violence” and “the prey rather than the predator.”
That stay in prison had exactly the same effect as the last one, and Andrews attempted to rob a laundry after being released. Aside from a brief period of time during which he somehow managed to have a stable relationship, a child, and a job, his life was pretty much more of the same. Until he committed three murders and finally found himself facing capital charges.
The murders were gruesome crimes. It wasn’t a slam dunk case against Andrews, however. Authorities focused on him as a suspect because they arrested someone else in connection with the murders, and he snitched on Andrews. The snitch got 17 years to life in prison for his cooperation. A jury failed to reach a verdict in Andrews’s first trial. The jury in his second trial deliberated for three days before finding him guilty. He was sentenced to death.
Andrews’s situation has the classic features of many other capital cases. There was an ugly crime begging to be solved, one that had to be solved. There was a snitch with a lot to lose and a great plea deal giving authorities the case on a platter. Most importantly, there was a defendant with a horrible life history. Even though there’s a lot more that’s noteworthy about Andrews’s case, that last part is why it this post is being written.
The jury that sentenced Andrews to death never heard about Andrews’s family background. His lawyer never presented anything about his experiences in “juvenile reform school” and then in real prisons. The jury never heard that Andrews suffered from attention deficit disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, or organic brain impairment. Andrews is going to die, and the Supreme Court of California thought that was fine despite the lack of any meaningful presentation of mitigating evidence.
After evaluating the mitigating and aggravating evidence, the state court re-weighed it and assessed whether it was reasonably probable that, in the absence of any deficient performance by counsel, the sentencer “would have concluded that the balance of aggravating and mitigating circumstances did not warrant death.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695; see In re Andrews, 52 P.3d at 671–75. The state court applied the relevant Supreme Court precedent, and concluded that Andrews was not “prejudiced by counsel’s rejection of a defense premised on evidence of [Andrews]’s upbringing, the Alabama prison conditions he experienced, and his mental health in light of the circumstances of the crimes, given the ambiguous nature of some mitigating evidence and the substantial potential for damaging rebuttal.”
If you’re wondering how can that be, it’s because of the idea of prejudice. The court said Andrews was not prejudiced by the deficient performance of his lawyer. They did a few gymnastics, engaged in a bit of sophistry about why these terrible things in Andrews’ past might cut the other way if you squinted real tight and tilted your head sideways.
In other words, the court went ahead and, from its own point of view, reweighed his whole mitigating life story against the bad stuff. Using its amazing legal crystal ball, or maybe just a blindfold and some darts, it figured a jury would still want to kill Andrews even if his lawyer had done is job. Why put the question to a jury when a court can clearly decide what a jury would have done if this mitigating evidence had come before it in the first place?
Rather, “[t]he federal habeas scheme leaves primary responsibility with the state courts for these judgments, and authorizes federal-court intervention only when a state-court decision is objectively unreasonable. It is not that here.” Id. In sum, the Court held that “[w]hether or not we would reach the same conclusion as the California Supreme Court, we think at the very least that the state court’s contrary assessment was not ‘unreasonable.’”
That guess was not objectively unreasonable, according to the Ninth Circuit.
Bizarrely, the court said Andrews’ “relatively stable family background” wasn’t nearly as bad as the defendant’s “nightmarish childhood” in another case. I supposed they’re talking about the background that lasted all of about fourteen years before the system that now seeks to kill Andrews took him in and turned him into what he is today. Or maybe they mean his experience with the criminal justice system as well. The judges might not view that as “nightmarish” either.
Perhaps they think that violence and rape and substandard living conditions during a person’s formative years aren’t such a big deal. Suck it up, right? Quit complaining? There are a lot of “nightmarish” stories in the criminal justice system, and it’s a high bar when comparing who nightmare is the worst.
The lengths to which courts will go to uphold a death sentence are astonishing. Andrews is going to die. He was sentenced to death by a jury that didn’t know the most important things about him. Because some judges looked at all the mitigating stuff the jury never heard and felt confident that they could predict what they think another jury would do, Andrews doesn’t get the chance to find out what a jury would actually do. What’s so great about juries anyway? So what if the Constitution says you get one, plus effective assistance of counsel, both at the same time?
It’s his life. It’s their guess. It seems terribly unfair, so what? It probably seems pretty unfair to Andrews too, but I doubt he’s surprised that the system failed him yet again.