Justices question traumatic brain injury claims in triple murder

January 10, 2019

Counsel for a man sentenced to death for two separate murders and 65 years in prison for a third argued his representation was ineffective in the first two cases when prior counsel failed to adequately investigate and present evidence of a traumatic brain injury the man had sustained.

Indiana Supreme Court justices heard oral argument Thursday in the combined capital murder cases of William Clyde Gibson, III v. State of Indiana, No. 22S00-1601-PD-00009, as well as a third on petition to transfer. Gibson was denied his petitions for post-conviction relief from his two sentences of death in Gibson v. State, 43 N.E.3d 231 (Ind. 2015) and Gibson v. State, 51 N.E.3d 204 (Ind. 2016) on direct appeal. He was similarly denied relief from his 65-year sentence in Gibson v. State, No. 22A01-1711-PC-2528 (Ind. Ct. App. July 16, 2018).

Gibson’s counsel, Lindsay Van Gorkom, argued to the high court Thursday those denials were a mistake. Specifically, she contended that the defense counsel in Gibson’s capital cases failed to adequately investigate whether he had a brain injury and failed to present known evidence during the penalty phases of Gibson I and Gibson II of how that brain injury could have impacted him.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court case Wiggins v. Smith, Van Gorkom said the test was whether the known evidence would lead a reasonable attorney to investigate further. An MRI conducted shortly before the first trial for Gibson I showed scarring on Gibson’s brain, likely sustained from a 1991 car accident.

Van Gorkom continued that a neurologist who read the scan mistakenly concluded it to be a result of hypertension, which Gibson’s counsel should have known to be false based on his medical records that said he had no history of such.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush countered that she struggled with Van Gorkom’s argument, noting Gibson had trouble with substance abuse problems before the traumatic brain injured occurred. 

“Where do you link up the showing of the traumatic brain injury with the three horrific killings?” Rush asked. “There’s no dispute there were four significant death-qualifying aggravators in the case. He committed three murders in the span of a decade, two while on probation that included sexual assault; the last one involved dismemberment.”

Opposing counsel for the state, Tyler Banks, argued that Gibson’s post-conviction narrative had multiple issues, starting with the lack of explanation for why it took nearly 10 years for Gibson to commit minor thefts and OWIs to eventual murder, with an additional 10 years between the final two killings. He also contended that Gibson’s ex-wife testified that his drinking problems escalated before the 1991 car crash, and that Gibson himself told the Kentucky Department of Corrections that his drinking had escalated as early as 1982.

“The point under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), is that the narrative that Mr. Gibson has constructed on post-conviction is one of many that could be constructed,” Banks said. He added that Gibson’s counsel in the capital case was not deficient for not further investigating the results of Gibson’s MRI.

Strickland does not require counsel to second-guess trained medical experts when they give them their opinion,” Banks said. “In fact, what Strickland and cases following it say is that counsel has to take reasonable investigations, and that includes not traveling down paths when they have a good reason not to, and when a medical expert told counsel that this was not a route worth traveling, it was not unreasonable to rely on that expert’s opinion.”

“The proof was strong, and Gibson’s crimes were shocking to the conscience, and in all, even when we add in Dr. Chambers’ speculation about the lasting effects of a traumatic brain injury, the mitigating case is weak,” he concluded.

Thursday’s oral argument can be viewed here.










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