Teen’s Lawyer Should Have Looked at Psychological Defense

For the professional edge in your day-to-day practice, rely on the most timely, objective reporting on significant developments, trends, and emerging patterns in criminal law today—Criminal Law...

By Jordan S. Rubin

A 14-year-old girl’s lawyer should have investigated whether to pursue a psychological defense at her murder trial, a divided Ninth Circuit held April 21 ( Weeden v. Johnson , 2017 BL 131303, 9th Cir., No. 14-17366, 4/21/17 ).

To hold otherwise would reduce the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to “mere ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing,’” Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz wrote for the majority, quoting Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

The court’s decision reinforces a lawyer’s duty to investigate psychological defenses when the defendant’s state of mind is at issue in a criminal prosecution.

‘Party' Invite Turns Deadly

Sarah Weeden aided a “botched robbery” that led to the death of an older teenage boy who had invited Weeden and her friends to “party” in July 2005. That boy and another older male promised the girls “beer” and “weed.” Weeden and her friends declined the invitation but gave them Weeden’s cell number.

Weeden and others decided to rob the boys the following month.

Weeden wasn’t at the scene, but she lured them to a park where her accomplices attempted to rob them. One of the accomplices shot and killed one of the boys.

Weeden was convicted of felony murder and attempted robbery. She was sentenced to 29 years to life in prison. Weeden was acquitted of attempted murder.

At trial, Weeden’s lawyer called character witnesses but didn’t present any expert psychological testimony.

Lawyer Fails to Investigate

Lower courts incorrectly applied U.S. Supreme Court precedent when they found Weeden’s lawyer didn’t have to investigate psychological defenses ahead of trial, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held, granting Weeden’s habeas corpus petition.

It’s possible Weeden’s lawyer would have found a psychological defense unhelpful, but, to be constitutionally effective, he had to at least look into it first, the court explained.

In a case where the prosecution needed to prove Weeden’s intent, psychological evidence of Weeden’s youthful vulnerability could have changed the outcome of her trial, the panel noted. Investigating psychological defenses isn’t necessary in every case, but it was required in this one, the court found.

The Supreme Court has consistently held that the mind of a 14-year-old is less developed than an adult’s, the court said.

Judge Donald W. Molloy of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, sitting by designation, was also on the panel.

Judge Consuelo M. Callahan dissented. The majority was simply on a “quest to free a 14-year-old girl from the consequences” of a murder conviction, she argued.

Charles M. Bonneau, Jr. of Sacramento, Calif. represented Weeden. The government was represented by the Office of the Attorney General, Sacramento, Calif.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Try Criminal Law Reporter