Death Row Inmate Argues That Counsel Failed to Present Essential Mitigating Evidence Regarding Adverse Child Experiences Score

Above: Defendant Michael Tisius — Image Source: Ozarks First

The U.S. District Court for the Western Division of Missouri denied death row inmate Michael Tisius’s petition for writ of habeas corpus on October 30, 2020. Tisius, who was convicted in 2002 of two counts of first-degree murder for shooting two officers in Huntsville, Missouri, had argued that that his counsel was ineffective during his sentencing by not calling an expert witness to testify about the potential neurological and behavioral effects of his high Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs) score.

An ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect, and other adverse childhood experiences. According to the CDC website, “ACEs have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity.”

An ACE score measures 10 types of childhood trauma , which are broken up into three different categories: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Image source: Tiger Times

On appeal, Tisius claims that his counsel was “ineffective in not presenting adequate testimony from neuropsychologist[s],” specifically from an expert who had evaluated Tisius and found that Tisius ‘“experienced six out of ten possible Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs) .’” A second doctor had also diagnosed Tisius with multiple “neurological and psychiatric disorders,” including complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dependent personality disorder, and frontotemporal striatal dysfunction.

Tisius argued that “[r]easonable counsel would have retained a trauma expert to educate the jury beyond its simplistic defense mitigation narrative that [Tisius] had ‘a bad childhood’ and instead explained how high ACE factors lead to neurological consequences that alter the brain permanently and how these ACE factors impacted his behavior.”

The district court found Tisius’s argument “unpersuasive.” In its opinion, the district court noted, first, that during Tisius’ sentencing, “three psychological experts testified” about the “effects of [Tisius’s] childhood” and [his] mental disorders.” Second, Tisius’s claim was not raised in state court, and therefore, in accordance with Missouri legislation, could not be raised in appellate court. Nor, the district court held, did Tisius demonstrate that he should be granted an exception to that rule.

Accordingly, Tisius petition was denied on October 30, 2020.

Key words: habeas corpus, ineffective assistance of counsel, Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs) score, PTSD, frontotemporal striatal dysfunction, Missouri

Citation: Tisius v. Jennings, No. 4:17-CV-00426-SRB, 2020 WL 6386874, (W.D. Mo. Oct. 30, 2020)

This post is the 31st 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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Center for Law, Brain & Behavior

Center for Law, Brain & Behavior

at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School