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Death Row Inmate Denied Appeal for Ineffective Counsel Claim

By Kelly Cheung on May 30, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Texas death row inmate, Lisa Ann Coleman, was denied the possibility to appeal her capital murder conviction and death penalty sentence for the death of her partner's son. In 2004, Coleman's girlfriend's son was found dead at his home. The 9-year-old boy had numerous injuries throughout his body indicating he was bound repeatedly. He was also extremely emaciated and his cause of death was from malnutrition and pneumonia.

Coleman was convicted in the starvation of the young boy and sentenced to death in 2006.

In support of her appeal, Coleman argued that her attorneys failed to investigate certain facts that were relevant to her case, violating her Sixth Amendment right to counsel. She also argued that her legal team failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence.

The Fifth Circuit denied the death row inmate's request for a Certificate of Appealability because her arguments failed to show that her attorneys' trial strategies and decisions prejudiced her case.

The court reviewed the proceedings leading to Coleman's conviction and would only grant the COA if a reasonable jurist would agree that, or at least find debatable whether, the state court unreasonably applied the standard used in Strickland v. Washington.

In Strickland, the Supreme Court explained the standard in reviewing a conviction or death sentence based on ineffective counsel. It requires two showings:

  1. Counsel's performance was deficient, and;
  2. The deficient performance prejudiced the defense.

The Fifth Circuit disagreed with Coleman's argument that her attorneys failed her by not having investigated or presented testimony from her girlfriend, Marcella Williams. The court found that a reasonable jury would not debate this issue. Her attorneys were reasonable in not using Williams in her case because there was good reason it would be fruitless or harmful. Williams was facing the death penalty herself for the death of her son, and she made incriminating statements against Coleman to police and Child Protective Services in the past.

The Fifth Circuit also found no prejudice from Coleman's attorneys' decisions to not interview or call as witnesses Coleman's aunt and sister. The court held it is a part of trial strategy whether or not counsel will call certain witnesses. Coleman failed to provide evidence that the failure to call them prejudiced the outcome of her case.

Coleman also argued that there was an injustice by failing to present all mitigating evidence including obtaining a neuropsychological test and her own horrific upbringing and lack of basic parenting skills. The Fifth Circuit did not find a reasonable jurist would believe or debate that the results would be different. Coleman failed to show what a neurological test would have shown or what evidence her counsel did not present.

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