Court Cases By Federal

Byram v. Ozmint
339 F. 3d 203 (4th Cir. 2003)

Byram was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He sought to overturn his sentence in a federal habeas corpus proceeding. The issue of relevance was whether Byram's trial attorney failed adequately to investigate the possibility that Byram had FAS so as to offer evidence of FAS as a possible mitigating factor.

In concluding that Byram was not denied effective assistance of counsel, the court relied on three considerations.

First, the attorney did investigate Byram's assertion that he had FAS. (a) Counsel asked his mother if she drank during pregnancy; she said she had not. [If a mother feels guilty about having caused a birth defect, she may provide unreliable information, especially if she is still abusing alcohol. It would be prudent to ask a third party who knew the birth mother at the time.] (b) "Nothing in the birth mother's medical records indicated alcohol consumption during pregnancy." [Other records might indicate that, even if records about her pregnancy did not]. (c) "EEG and MRI tests showed no evidence of FAS." [EEG and the usual MRI test usually would not.] 339 F. 3d at 210.

Second, the attorneys made "reasonable efforts to obtain [Byram's] actual adoption records", which might have provided more evidence about FAS. 339 F. 3d at 210-11.

Third, a great deal of time and effort was spent investigating mitigating factors generally. 339 F. 3d at 210.

Although some parts of the court's analysis are debatable, this attorney certainly made a greater effort to investigate FAS than many others. It would be important if the courts were to hold that the efforts in this case represented the level of effort that generally should be made to investigate FAS.