On October 1, 2010, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the Shelby County Circuit Court’s order reversing LaSamuel Gamble's death sentence on the ground that Gamble’s trial lawyers failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence at the penalty phase of his capital trial, in violation of Gamble’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) attorneys William Montross and Lauren Sudeall Lucas, and former SCHR attorney Vanessa Buch, represented Gamble in state habeas proceedings successfully challenging Gamble’s death sentence.
At Gamble’s 1996 capital trial, his lawyers presented no evidence at the penalty phase and called no witnesses on his behalf. Not surprisingly, Gamble’s jury, by a vote of 10-2, recommended that he be sentenced to death. The trial court followed that recommendation and sentenced Gamble to death.
SCHR challenged Gamble’s death sentence on the grounds that he was denied a basic right: the effective assistance of counsel. An evidentiary hearing was held, in June 2006, before the same judge that originally sentenced Gamble to death. SCHR attorneys first demonstrated that Gamble’s attorneys failed to provide the minimal assistance guaranteed by the Constitution. As the circuit court found, and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, one of Gamble’s trial attorneys appeared not know what mitigation evidence was, how to obtain mitigating evidence, or what mitigating evidence was admissible during the penalty phase of a capital trial. The same courts found that Gamble’s other attorney’s efforts at investigating his client’s abusive and neglected background “consisted of randomly stopping people in Gamble's neighborhood and asking these people if they knew Gamble, and, if so, what was their opinion of him.”
After demonstrating that Gamble’s attorneys provided deficient representation, SCHR attorneys presented multiple witnesses and hundreds of pages of records that offered reasons why Mr. Gamble should not be sentenced to death. The Court of Criminal Appeals said these witnesses “painted a bleak picture of Gamble’s childhood.” Gamble’s father was an “abusive and violent” alcoholic who beat his wife and once passed out drunk on top of his infant daughter, smothering her to death. Gamble’s mother was described as “slow” and had a full-scale IQ score in the mentally retarded range. At three months old, Gamble – described as “dirty and emaciated” -- was placed in the custody of Child Protective Services because of parental neglect. Even the state’s own social service records indicated that Gamble grew up in a “’run down shack,’ with 23 relatives in four rooms.” As the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals succinctly noted: “The testimony and exhibits presented a bleak and troubled childhood marked by neglect and indifference.”
Gamble’s attorneys were paid little to represent him and operated under severe financial constraints. Because Alabama has no state-wide public defender office, never mind an office that possesses the skill and resources to defend people accused of capital crimes, Gamble’s fate hinged on one fact more than any other: he was poor.
SCHR seeks to strengthen the quality of capital defense representation in Georgia and Alabama, two of the most active death penalty jurisdictions in the nation. To achieve this, SCHR engages in innovative and bold litigation that is complemented by strategic policy reform that educates lawmakers, the courts and the public about the deep-rooted problems in the death penalty system in the South. It is through our litigation, as evidenced in the case of LaSamuel Gamble, that we drill down past the superficial appearance of due process to expose the prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate counsel, and judicial biases that permeate the death process.
Read the decision here.