Supreme Court blocks execution set for today

Convicted killer's lawyer had represented victim in a different Va. case

April 17, 2001|By Thomas Healy | Thomas Healy,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court halted the execution of a convicted murderer who was scheduled to die today and agreed yesterday to consider whether his constitutional rights were violated because the lawyer who defended him at trial had represented the victim in another case.

The justices agreed to accept the appeal of Walter Mickens Jr., convicted of murdering Timothy Hall. The 17-year-old victim was found stabbed to death at the bottom of an embankment in Newport News, Va., in March 1992.

Mickens was represented at trial by Bryan Saunders, a lawyer who was appointed by the court. But Mickens was not told that Saunders had been chosen to represent Hall on assault charges two weeks earlier. Saunders had met with Hall once for 30 minutes, but the youth was killed before the case went to trial.

After Mickens was convicted and sentenced to death, he was assigned new lawyers who discovered the link between Saunders and Hall. They appealed the conviction, arguing that Mickens had been denied his right to the effective assistance of a lawyer because Saunders had had a conflict of interest in the case.

A panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond agreed and overturned Mickens' conviction.

But the full appeals court reversed that decision, concluding that, by itself, a conflict of interest is not enough to warrant a new trial. Instead, it ruled, Mickens must show that the conflict impaired his attorney's performance - a burden the court said Mickens had not met.

Also yesterday, the court:

Refused to hear the appeal of Aldrich Ames, the former CIA operative convicted in 1994 of spying for the former Soviet Union. Prosecutors said the veteran officer had leaked secrets for eight years and was responsible for the loss of at least a dozen Soviet agents who had been spying for the West.

Ames, who pleaded guilty to the charges and is serving a life sentence, now says his plea was coerced by prosecutors. Two lower courts denied that claim before the Supreme Court refused to accept the case yesterday.

Turned away an appeal by a convicted husband-and-wife team of Marxist spies who claimed that the federal government was wrong to plan its successful sting operation based on secretly recorded information about the woman's fragile mental health.

Turned down, without comment, anti-abortion protesters' argument that Congress overstepped its authority to regulate interstate commerce when it enacted the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.

Turned away California prosecutors who wanted to keep secret the names of the witnesses who would testify against Joaquin Alvarado, a prison gang member who is to be tried for the killing of Jose Uribe, a fellow inmate at the Los Angeles County Jail.

Let stand a lower court decision that allowed air pollution standards for Indian land that are tougher than the rules for adjacent state land.

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