The Supreme Court postponed the scheduled execution of a convicted killer from Virginia and agreed Monday to consider whether the man got a fair trial while represented by a lawyer who had recently represented the alleged victim.
Walter Mickens was scheduled to die in Virginia on Tuesday for the 1992 death of a 17-year-old boy. Timothy Hall was apparently raped and his half-naked body left sprawled on a dirty mattress underneath a building in Newport News, Va. He had been stabbed 143 times.
Mickens was quickly arrested and was assigned a lawyer, Bryan Saunders. Only days earlier, Saunders had represented Hall on a different matter. The judge who assigned Saunders to Mickens' case was the same one who heard the Hall case.
Mickens' new lawyers asked the Supreme Court to delay the execution and take Mickens' appeal. Mickens' lawyers say Saunders' failure to step aside in light of his previous work was a conflict of interest and that Mickens deserves a new trial.
The Sixth Amendment not only guarantees the right to a lawyer, it guarantees the right to a lawyer without a conflict of interest, Mickens' lawyers said.
That argument was rejected by a lower appeals court, which said that to get a new trial, Mickens must demonstrate that he was truly harmed by Saunders. Merely showing that a potential conflict existed is not enough, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
By accepting Mickens' case, the Supreme Court neither guaranteed Mickens will get a new trial nor guaranteed his life will be spared. The death sentence is on hold while the court considers Mickens' case, and if the justices rule against him the execution could be quickly rescheduled.
Mickens did not learn about Saunders' prior work until years after the 1993 trial.
Robert J. Wagner, appellate lawyer for Mickens, also asked Gov. Jim Gilmore to grant clemency for Mickens. Wagner claimed Mickens' 1993 trial was "awash in ethical and legal dereliction."
"Virginia justice will be irreparably begrimed should the commonwealth carry out the execution of a person whose guilt or innocence was tested in such a flagrantly deficient manner," Wagner wrote in the petition.
Mickens, 46, has been on Virginia's death row longer than any other current inmate. He was scheduled to become the second person executed this year at the state's Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt.