The recently decided Sixth Circuit case of Howell v. Hodge began in 1997 when Karen Howell and five of her friends set off from Pikeville, Kentucky to New Orleans. At the time, Howell was only 17-years-old, another of the group was 14 and the rest were over 18. The group of friends brought two guns with them on their journey and discussed forcibly trading in their broken down car for a newer one along the way.
While stopped in Greeneville, Tennessee, an opportunity to steal a better car presented itself. A Jehovah’s Witness, Vidar Lillelid, came up to Howell and her friends and began to share his religious views.
One of Howell’s compatriots brandished a gun and walked Lillelid back to his family’s van despite Mr. Lillelid’s offer of his wallet and his keys. The group ended up ordering Lillelid to pull over on a secluded stretch of road, at which point, all four members of the family were shot multiple times. The only person to survive was the Lillelid’s two-year-old son who lost an eye in the attack.
Howell and her group attempted to flee to Mexico but were caught in Arizona after failing to cross the border. Howell and her friends still had several of the Lillelid’s possessions when they were apprehended.
Prosecutors in Tennessee then filed charges and initially sought the death penalty. In exchange for dropping the death penalty charges, the group pled guilty to the crime, with Howell and the other minor pleading guilty in adult court. Howell was eventually sentenced to three life sentences to be served consecutively without the possibility of parole.
Howell then filed a petition for relief, claiming that she received ineffective assistance of counsel. She said that her attorney at the time should have insisted that she take a psychological evaluation to determine if her mental state required that she be committed to a psychiatric institution, which would have prevented her being transferred to adult court. The case made its way to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which found that although the attorney had indeed been deficient, Howell was not able to show prejudice.
The Sixth Circuit agreed to hear the case and laid out that for an ineffective assistance of counsel claim to succeed under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, a claimant must show that deficient performance resulted in prejudice. The Sixth Circuit agreed with lower courts that there were reasonable grounds to believe Howell was not “committable” at the time of her trial. Thus, her attorney’s lack of action to get her a psychological evaluation does not prove prejudice. Moreover, the Sixth Circuit says that for a claimant to make such an ineffective assistance claim, he or she must establish that, but for their counsel’s ineffectiveness, he or she would not have pled guilty and would instead have gone to trial. Howell never says that, just that she might have been committed to an institution for a brief period of time for evaluation.
The Sixth Circuit ultimately affirmed the conviction and the ruling of the Tennessee Supreme Court. The Court found that the test for ineffective assistance of counsel is a demanding one that requires claimants prove that the likelihood of a different result is substantial, not just conceivable.
To read the full opinion, click here
(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 266-0605.)