Fourth Circuit Denies Defendant’s Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim, Despite Neuroimaging Revealing Brain Abnormalities
Recent Cases in Law and Neuroscience, Curated by the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior and the Shen Neurolaw Lab with support from the Dana Foundation
In 1999, Owens was convicted of murdering a woman during an armed robbery in South Carolina when he was 20 years old. He was sentenced to death for his crimes. In 2016, Owens had extensive brain imaging done (MRI and PET), and the doctor who conducted that scans concluded that “the neuroimaging showed ‘abnormalities indicating brain damage’ in regions of the brain ‘important for regulating emotions and behavior’” and additionally suggested that Owens’s frontal lobe was “unable to do its job and act as the brakes on the primitive emotional impulses’ emanating from his ‘hyper-activated’ amygdala.” In Owens’s appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals in December 2019, Owens argued that his counsel failed to obtain this “comprehensive neuroimaging evaluation” that showed “evidence of structural and functional brain damage,” which Owens contends should have been used as mitigating evidence during his sentencing. As a result, Owens argues that he received ineffective assistance of counsel which would be in violation of his rights under the 6th amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
However, the court rejected Owens’s claim, stating that during his previous trials/appeals, his counsel did “thoroughly investigate his mental condition as a mitigating factor” — during an earlier appeal in 2006, a doctor who had conducted a “battery of neuropsychological tests used to assess ‘how the different areas of [Owens’s] brain [were] functioning,’” testified in court that “Owens had ‘a history of lifelong problems with brain function’ and related ‘psychiatric issues’ such as impulsivity, irritability and depression; ‘some select areas of deficit,’ particularly in the verbal areas of the brain; and a history of head injury.” Additionally, a forensic psychologist had diagnosed Owens “with an unspecified anxiety disorder; an unspecified impulse control disorder; and Antisocial Personality Disorder.” More so, a clinical social worker assessed Owens and spoke to both Owens as well as family members regarding his developmental history, and testified that Owens had multiple experiences with “abuse, neglect and violence.” This social worker testified to the court that “such troubled upbringings have been shown to increase the likelihood that a child will later engage in violent crime.”
The United States Court of Appeals stated in its opinion that because the court “does not require counsel to investigate every conceivable line of mitigating evidence,’ . . . the fact that Sentencing Counsel didn’t see fit to peruse a compressive neurobehavioral assessment doesn’t amount to ‘incompetence under prevailing professional norms.’” Additionally, they concluded that “[Owens’s] mental health experts reached conclusions that belied the need for comprehensive neuroimaging.” For these reasons, Owens’s appeal was denied on July 22, 2020.
Citation: Owens v. Stirling, 967 F.3d 396 (4th Cir. 2020).
Key words: death sentence, ineffective assistance of counsel, 6th Amendment, frontal lobe, amygdala, brain damage, neuroimaging, South Carolina
This post is 14th 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.