A federal judge in South Bend has denied a death row inmate’s request for habeas corpus, rejecting the man’s claims that he is mentally retarded and, therefore, cannot be sentenced to death.
Chief Judge Robert L Miller Jr. in the Northern District of Indiana released the 83-page decision Tuesday which states the record doesn’t support finding that the Indiana courts acted unreasonably in finding that Tom Pruitt is not mentally retarded and that his attorneys provided anything short of effective assistance.
Pruitt was convicted of murdering Morgan County Deputy Sheriff Daniel Starnes and was sentenced to death. Starnes pulled Pruitt over in June 2001 after seeing Pruitt driving erratically. When Starnes approached Pruitt’s car, Pruitt filed several shots at Starnes and his college-aged son, who was riding along with his dad. Starnes died nearly a month after the shooting after developing an infection.
All along, Pruitt has sought to have the death penalty precluded under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), claiming he suffered from mental retardation and that the imposition of the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.
A divided Indiana Supreme Court affirmed his convictions and sentence and affirmed the denial of post-conviction relief.
Pruitt raised eight arguments in his habeas corpus petition, including that his execution is barred by the Eighth Amendment because he is mentally retarded, his attorneys were ineffective, and there was an improper jury instruction.
Miller noted that Pruitt is borderline – either a high-functioning mentally retarded individual or an individual with a very low average intelligence – and that the courts “faced the challenge of deciding where Mr. Pruitt fits on that imprecise continuum.”
Miller did grant a certificate of appealability as to four of the claims raised by Pruitt: whether the death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment because he is mentally retarded; whether his trial counsel were ineffective for failing to investigate adequately and present readily available evidence of his mental retardation at the pre-trial mental retardation hearing and at the trial penalty’s phase; whether his trial counsel were ineffective for failing to investigate and present readily available evidence in support of a verdict of guilty but mentally ill; and whether Pruitt’s death sentence was obtained in violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury and his right to due process law because the jury wasn’t instructed that it had to find that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt.