Death Row Inmate Argues Ineffective Assistance of Counsel for Failure to Present Expert Testimony on Neurological Defects

Above: James Hanna (link)

On February 11, 2021, the Sixth Circuit denied death row inmate James Hanna’s habeas corpus petition, which had alleged ineffective assistance of counsel based on failure to present mitigating evidence of mental illness and brain damage.

Hanna, an inmate at Lebanon Correctional Institute, was convicted of aggravated murder for killing his cellmate and sentenced to death in 1998. After exhausting direct-appeal and state postconviction remedies, he filed a federal habeas corpus petition in 2009.

His 2009 petition alleged ineffective assistance of counsel based on failure to present expert testimony as to how his neurological defects and experience of prison culture had contributed to his offense by molding his psychological and emotional makeup over the 30 years he was incarcerated.

The court dismissed this motion with prejudice, finding that it was unlikely that such expert testimony would have changed the outcome of his trial and that the remaining arguments were without merit.

Hanna filed a second federal habeas petition in 2019, again arguing that his counsel had failed to present mitigating evidence of his neurological deficits. In addition to the evidence raised in his 2009 petition, he argued that counsel should have presented neuroimaging evidence and evidence of his complex trauma, severe PTSD reuslting from prior sexual abuse, and brain damage.

The Sixth Circuit disagreed. One judge dissented, finding that evidence of mental illness and neuroimaging to show organic defects had not been adjudicated in his previous petition.

However, the majority found that Hanna had failed to raise new evidence and accordingly dismissed his petition as successive.

Citation: In re Hanna, 987 F.3d 605 (6th Cir. 2021).

Key words: Ohio, death penalty, neuroimaging, brain damage, PTSD, habeas corpus

This post is the 101st post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.

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at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

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