Monday, October 1, 2001
Ninth Circuit Upholds Order for New Death-Penalty Trial in Murder of State Employee
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Sacramento man convicted of shooting a woman, then allowing her to bleed to death, received ineffective assistance from a lawyer who failed to bring up evidence of severe childhood abuse, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The court affirmed a 1999 ruling by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of the Eastern District of California—who has since taken senior status—that Steven King Ainsworth is entitled to a new death-penalty trial.
“Counsel offered no tactical reason for failing to prepare and present the mitigating evidence and to argue its relevance,” Judge Procter Hug Jr. wrote for a divided panel. “Had the jury been able to consider the wealth of mitigating evidence available to the defense counsel with reasonable investigation and preparation, there is a reasonable probability that the jury would have rendered a verdict of life imprisonment without parole.”
Judge William Fletcher concurred, but Judge Susan Graber dissented. While “a different lawyer might have presented more, different, or better mitigating evidence,” Graber argued, “the record does not establish that [defense attorney Brian Christiansen’s] performance was constitutionally inadequate.”
Ainsworth was the first person sentenced to death in Sacramento Superior Court after California reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Jurors found that Ainsworth should die for killing Seng “Nancy” Huynh, a 32-year-old key-punch operator at the state Employment Development Department.
Witnesses said Ainsworth and an accomplice abducted the victim from a downtown Sacramento parking lot, shot her in the hip, and then allowed her to bleed to death over a 24-hour period.
A 1996 order by Karlton overturning the conviction and sentence on the ground that Christiansen, now deceased, failed to counter the state’s theory that Ainsworth murdered Huynh by denying her access to medical care was overturned by a different Ninth Circuit panel. Those judges held that defense counsel could not have obtained sufficient forensic evidence to alter the jury’s conclusion on that issue.
In his 1999 ruling, Karlton said the case presented by Christiansen at the 1980 penalty phase “amounted in every respect to no representation at all.”
Christiansen, the judge found, failed to investigate “meaningful mitigating evidence” and made a “blundering contribution” to the prosecution case by asking the defendant’s ex-girlfriend if she had seen Ainsworth with a gun.
The prosecution then elicited testimony from the witness that Ainsworth once obtained a gun to use in an armed robbery but changed his mind when he saw police near the bank he intended to rob.
Hug rejected the state’s argument that Christiansen’s decisions in the penalty phase—he presented only four witnesses, all friends and relatives of the defendant—were reasonable tactical choices.
All that the four testified to, Hug said, citing the “acerbic but accurate” words of the prosecutor, was that “[Ainsworth’s] a good artist. He’s kind to animals, and he doesn’t commit crimes with his family looking.”
The prosecution argued that even if Christiansen made mistakes, his representation didn’t violate “prevailing professional norms” in 1980, prior to the development of an entire body of expertise on how to present mitigation defenses in capital cases.
But Hug concluded that the defense attorney probably would have persuaded jurors not to impose the death penalty is he had presented testimony about the history of substance abuse and physical abuse in Ainsworth’s family. He also concluded that a reasonable defense lawyer would have understood the importance of the evidence, and would also had known how to go about obtaining it.
Graber, however, said the defense presented “significant mitigating evidence” of Ainsworth’s kindness and lack of violence around the witnesses who testified.
As to Christiansen’s “blundering” by opening the door to testimony about Ainsworth’s intent to use a gun to commit robbery, Graber said, the impact was minimal. The jury already knew that the defendant had a history of robbery, she reasoned, and the testimony at least showed that the witness was able to maintain a favorable opinion of Ainsworth despite knowing of his penchant for crime.
Graber went on to argue that even if Christiansen’s performance was deficient, the defendant wasn’t prejudiced. Given the testimony that the defendant turned down his co-defendant’s pleas to take the victim for medical care or leave her where she might be found—because he feared going back to prison—and that the victim was raped as she was dying, it isn’t likely that a stronger defense would have persuaded the jury to reject the death penalty in any circumstances, Graber said.
The case is Ainsworth v. Woodford, 99-99024.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company