In 2007, the Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed the conviction and death sentence of Charles Ross based on the cumulative effect of multiple errors, including trial counsel’s failure to properly present information about Charles’s psychological problems.
Charles was convicted and sentenced to death for robbing and killing Hershell Yancey. Several people who lived in the trailer where Yancey’s belongings were found testified against Charles, although these witnesses’ statements were inconsistent. Charles denied involvement in Yancey’s death and suggested that the witnesses against him were the actual killers. The police determined that fingerprints found at the scene of the crime did not match Charles but failed to test the prints against any of the other witnesses. The detective said he thought that defense counsel “was going to take care of that” and “there was no reason to suspect any of them because to our knowledge and all, they were assisting us.”
During post-conviction proceedings, volunteer counsel from Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand also discovered a number of mitigating factors that were not properly presented to the jury, including accounts of physical and sexual abuse, possible alcoholism, accounts of visual and auditory hallucinations, the deaths of Charles’s ex-wife and four young children in a car accident, and the brutal murder of his sister. At the time he was arrested, Charles was taking anti-psychotic medication and medication for depression. Trial counsel did not investigate Charles’s mental health, instead relying on Charles’s assertion that he “wasn’t crazy.”
Defense counsel also failed to properly investigate Charles’s prison record. His counsel superficially asserted in opening statements that Charles had been a “good prisoner” since his arrest. In doing so, counsel opened the door for the State to introduce Charles’s previous bad acts into evidence, casting Charles as unrepentant, a habitual criminal, and a danger to society. The court found that this error, combined with trial counsel’s failure to properly present Charles’s psychological problems, deprived him of a fair trial. The court expressed particular concern about trial counsel’s poor representation because the evidence against Charles was “not overwhelming.” The court said, “[i]n death penalty cases, all genuine doubts about the harmlessness of error must be resolved in favor of the accused because of the severity of the punishment.” At his retrial, Charles was sentenced to life without parole.