Published on: Monday, August 23, 2021

A South Carolina death-row inmate is entitled to a new sentencing hearing because both his trial and appellate counsel were ineffective, the Fourth Circuit held.

While he was young, Sammie L. Stokes was regularly beaten and sexually abused; he stole food so he could eat; he had to watch while his mother pimped his sister; and he witnessed the death of both of his parents. Stokes’ childhood led to drug use and a life of crime, which ultimately led him to confessing to a murder.

Ineffective trial counsel failed to present evidence of Sammie Louis Stokes’ traumatic childhood, while his appellate counsel failed to pursue the issue on appeal.

Stokes “confessed to capital murder, putting mitigation of the death penalty at the heart of his defense,” the court wrote. “His trial counsel prepared some personal mitigation evidence but, at the last minute, withheld it. Instead, counsel presented a single witness at sentencing: a retired prison warden who was unprepared and counterproductive. The jury returned a death sentence without hearing a word from the defense about Stokes as an individual.”

One of Stokes’ defense lawyers was a former prosecutor who personally prosecuted Stokes for an assault on his ex-wife.

Although the defense team knew “the broad outlines” of Stokes’ life story, they decided not to present any evidence. Yet Stokes’ sister and aunt were prepared to testify, as were a psychiatrist, a neurologist and a social worker.

“The unheard mitigation evidence would have shown Stokes experienced an ‘extraordinarily high’ degree of childhood adversity, likely surpassing 99.9% of the population,” the court said.