U.S. District Court Orders Hearing to Examine Evidence of Brain Damage in Inmate Sentenced to Death at Age 18

Above: Michael Gallegos (KTAR News)

On February 2, 2020, the United States District Court for the District of Arizona ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Michael Gallegos’ counsel performed ineffectively by failing to present evidence of brain damage at his resentencing.

Gallegos was convicted of first-degree murder and sexual conduct with a minor, crimes that he committed in 1990, at age 18. He was initially sentenced to death and, after a remand for re-sentencing on the murder count, was resentenced to death in 1996. Gallegos appealed his resentencing, asserting that his resentencing counsel had failed to present the mitigating evidence of his brain damage, among other issues. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted a limited remand.

On remand, Gallegos presented several mitigating factors, including a learning disability, struggles with substance use, and traumatic brain damage.

In 2017, a neuropsychologist completed an evaluation of Gallegos and found that he had sustained moderate to severe brain trauma from each of three ATV accidents he was involved in between the ages of 15 and 17. Testing revealed that Gallegos had impaired cognitive function in several areas, and that the brain damage was present at the time of the crimes.

The neuropsychologist asserted that “brain damage compromised Gallegos’s ability to inhibit or stop behavior once begun and made him susceptible to the influence of others” and that “it is conceivable that these abilities would have been even poorer back in 1990 when the crime was committed as Mr. Gallegos’s brain was even less developed, given his age and the associated lack of neural maturation that is evident in the brains of adolescents, especially those with learning disabilities and in those who have sustained brain damage as a result of multiple head injuries.”

A second psychologist tested Gallegos at age 30 and found that his academic age was approximately 10.5 years old. She opined that “it is reasonable to conclude that at the time this crime was committed, Michael operated cognitively in much the same manner as a far younger child…. At 18, the youth did not function in the least like a competent adult defendant.”

A third psychologist submitted an affidavit explaining that the frontal cortex develops last and continues to mature into the mid-twenties, and that substance use and traumatic brain injury can both slow brain development.

Gallegos argued that this “evidence of organic brain damage is particularly compelling in mitigation because it offers an explanation for a defendant’s behavior that is physiological and reduces moral culpability.” Additionally, Gallegos asserted that this information had been available to his resentencing counsel but was not utilized.

The court found that Gallegos’ resentencing counsel “performed ineffectively by failing to present evidence that Gallegos suffers from organic brain damage” and ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Gallegos was entitled to relief on that claim.

Citation: Gallegos v. Shinn, 2020 WL 836600

Key words: adolescent brain, young adult, death penalty, capital punishment, traumatic brain injury

This post is the 77th 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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