Joe Lee Guy was convicted of capital murder for his role as the unarmed lookout during a convenience store robbery in 1993. The two gunmen received life sentences while Joe, who had remained in the car, was sentenced to death. At trial, Joe was represented by a court-appointed attorney who had been disciplined by the state bar more than a dozen times. Volunteer attorneys at Dorsey & Whitney took on Joe’s case in 2000 and discovered the shocking number of problems associated with trial counsel’s performance.
The attorney’s performance at Joe’s trial was severely impaired by substance abuse. His secretary later reported that he had used cocaine on the way to court. Counsel’s performance also reflected his abysmal preparation: he hired an unlicensed investigator who befriended the victim’s mother and coached her through her testimony against Joe. The investigator later became the beneficiary of her $750,000 estate.
Dorsey & Whitney discovered significant evidence that would have been uncovered if a reasonable investigation had occurred at trial. With an IQ of 77, Joe was described as a compliant and simple man. He did not have a violent history and was traumatized by the frequent abuse of his mother during his childhood. School children would often throw pennies at Joe for entertainment, his abusive and drug-addicted mother would often leave Joe and his sister to take care of themselves, and his father, an alcoholic, was murdered. While the defense investigator failed to find any witnesses who could provide this information, Dorsey & Whitney attorneys located more than 50 witnesses who helped tell Joe’s story.
Joe had more support from the officials who prosecuted him than from his own defense attorney. Under Texas law, a majority of the state trial officials together may petition for clemency. Dorsey drafted a clemency petition and persuaded the prosecutor, current trial judge, and current and former sheriffs to sign. The statement they submitted said: “The facts of this case are unprecedented and have made clear to us that Guy’s death sentence should not stand.” The Texas Board of Parole and Pardons voted 15-0 to recommend clemency for Joe, but Governor Perry refused to act on the recommendation.
In June 2004, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas vacated Joe’s death sentence, finding that he received ineffective assistance of counsel when the investigator “transitioned from defense investigator to mercenary” during the course of trial preparation. Later that year, Joe was resentenced to life without parole.