New opinion — a major reversal in a capital habeas appeal

Abdul-Salaam v. Secretary — capital habeas — partial reversal — Chagares

The Third Circuit today held that a capital petitioner was entitled to habeas corpus relief due to ineffective assistance of this penalty-phase trial counsel in failing to investigate and present mitigation. It’s a significant capital habeas opinion because it involves a depressingly common scenario in capital cases, where counsel presents a sliver of the available mitigation evidence while failing to uncover the rest of what was available. Today’s opinion firmly rejected the arguments that counsel’s skepticism about whether he’d present certain evidence justified his failure to investigate it and that counsel’s presentation of morsels of evidence rendered all the evidence he missed cumulative.

Although the opinion didn’t emphasize the point, this case is another example of a district court denying a certificate of appealability on a claim that the Third Circuit thereafter granted relief on. In other words, the Third Circuit found that the claim was meritorious after the district court decided it was so weak that no reasonable jurist could even debate its merit! What a blunder.

Joining Chagares were Greenaway and Shwartz. The case was decided without oral argument.