Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, May 13, 2002


Page 1


Ninth Circuit Orders New Trial in Bay Area Murder, Says Death Row Inmate Got Bad Representation


By a MetNews Staff Writer


A death row inmate was granted a new trial Friday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said his trial lawyer gave him ineffective representation by not exploring a mental health defense.

Michael Wayne Jennings might have been convicted of manslaughter or second degree murder if Michael J. Oliver had presented evidence of his background instead of asserting an alibi that was “destroyed” because Oliver was confused over the time of a phone call, Senior Judge Betty B. Fletcher wrote for the panel.

Jennings was sentenced by a Contra Costa Superior Court judge in 1982 for the killing of his neighbor, Violet Newman, after jurors found that the murder was committed during the commission of or attempt to commit three felonies—murder, rape, and robbery. Prosecutors based their case on circumstantial evidence tying Jennings to the crime, including thumb and palm prints.

A search of the defendant’s truck produced rope identical to that found at the crime scene, a piece of the victim’s answering machine, and blood matching that of the victim. Prosecutors also introduced scientific evidence suggesting that he had attempted to have sex with the victim, and showed that a phone call had been made from the victim’s home around the time of the killing to a friend of the defendant whom Newman apparently didn’t know.

It was also established that Jennings lost a knife the night of the murder, and that the knife might have been the murder weapon. Jennings also knew facts about the case that police had made public.

Oliver testified at Jennings’ habeas corpus hearing that he did not explore a mental health or drug abuse defense because Jennings’ prior counsel, Carol Babington, had him examined by a psychiatrist and told Oliver the defendant was “Okay.” Oliver, who is currently under State Bar suspension in connection with unrelated matters,  could not be reached Friday for comment.

Babington, however, had only arranged a preliminary two-hour interview that was not intended to rule out any potential psychological defense, Fletcher explained.

Oliver, the judge said, did not speak to the psychiatrist until after Jennings was convicted, did not request copies of medical records, did not instruct his paralegal to inquire into possible child abuse, and did not seek expert advice concerning the effect of Jennings’ methamphetamine use, on the night of the murder and for a long time before that, on his mental state.

The attorney also failed to follow up on comments by Jennings’ ex-wife—whom Oliver had represented in the couple’s divorce—that Jennings was suicidal, that a psychiatrist had told her he was schizophrenic, and that she thought he was “crazy,” Fletcher said. Nor, she noted, did he investigate the circumstances of his client’s commitment to a juvenile justice facility for molesting young children when he was a teenager.

Fletcher disagreed with U.S. District Judge William Ingram of the Northern District of California, who denied habeas corpus relief based on his conclusion that Oliver had no reason to investigate mental health issues and made a reasonable tactical decision to pursue the alibi defense. 

Ninth Circuit precedent, the appellate jurist explained, holds that the decision to forego a mental health defense can only be a reasonable tactical choice if made after a reasonably extensive evaluation has been completed.

Oliver, Fletcher wrote, “ruled out those defenses not because he concluded after reasonable investigation that they were not viable, but because he settled instead on an alibi defense and abandoned all investigation into psychiatric factors.’

The judge went on to conclude that evidence of Jennings’ history of mental illness, the abuse he suffered at the hands of his parents as a child, and a pattern of self-mutilation beginning at age, and his history of drug and alcohol use would probably have persuaded a jury to find Jennings guilty of one of the lesser included offenses. She noted that even without such evidence, it took the jurors two days to find Jennings guilty of first degree murder.

Judges Thomas G. Nelson and Marsha S. Berzon joined in the opinion.

The case is Jennings v. Woodford, 00-99008.


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company