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Death Row Case Leads Agenda For Supreme Court’s New Term

By Joan Biskupic

The Supreme Court opened its 1999-2000 term Monday, hearing a Virginia death row case that may affect inmates who challenge the constitutionality of their sentences.

In a day marked by ceremony and the surprising appearance on the bench of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court also disposed of some 1,700 appeals filed during its summer recess.

Among the most closely watched cases, the justices allowed a Tennessee school district to continue drug-testing for prospective teachers and spurned an appeal of an Arizona policy allowing tax credits for people who donate scholarship money to religious schools -- an order likely to inflame the debate regarding public aid to parochial schools. The court also denied a death sentence appeal in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former radio reporter and commentator convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman in 1981.

The first order of business after the pounding of the opening gavel was oral arguments on the appeal of Terry Williams, who was convicted in the 1985 slaying of an elderly Danville man and has been on Virginia’s death row for 13 years, the longest of any current inmate. His case offers the justices a major opportunity to interpret a 1996 federal law intended to limit appeals by condemned prisoners. The overriding question is how much deference federal judges must give to state court opinions of inmates’ claims.

After his conviction, Williams argued that his trial lawyer was incompetent and failed to develop evidence that would have persuaded the jury against giving him the death sentence, including information about Williams’s troubled childhood, low intelligence and other mitigating factors. On appeal, family members testified about the abuse Williams endured as a child, including his being tied naked to a bed post and beaten by his father. The Virginia Supreme Court ultimately concluded, however, that even if his lawyer wrongly failed to put up such evidence, the omission did not seriously hurt Williams and the death sentence was “not fundamentally unfair or unreliable.”

Williams then challenged the sentence in federal court, based on his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel at trial.