JACKSON, Mississippi — The American Bar Association is joining a Mississippi death row inmate's quest for a new trial, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the failure of Thomas Loden Jr.'s lawyer to search the record for evidence that could have persuaded a judge to spare Loden's life.
The ABA argues in briefs that the trial lawyer's work fell below minimum constitutional standards for the effective assistance of counsel. The ABA urged the Supreme Court to hear Loden's appeal to determine "whether a defendant's decision to waive the right to present sentencing evidence should foreclose a finding that he was prejudiced by a deficient sentencing investigation. "
Loden, now 50, pleaded guilty in 2001 to the slaying of 16-year-old Leesa Gray. He was sentenced to death by a judge for capital murder plus 30 years for kidnapping and rape.
Gray disappeared June 22, 2000, while on her way home from work as a waitress at her family's restaurant in the Dorsey community. She was found dead of strangulation the next day in Loden's minivan, authorities said.
Loden argued his attorneys gave him poor legal advice during his Lee County trial. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument in March.
Loden filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court on June 29. A response from the Mississippi attorney general's office is due Aug. 31.
Loden has previously argued his original defense attorney failed to fully investigate his mental condition and background and gave him poor advice that led him to plead guilty and waive jury sentencing.
In 2013, U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers in Oxford, Mississippi, ruled Loden failed to prove his trial attorneys were inadequate.
Biggers sided with the Mississippi Supreme Court's findings that Loden was given "the basic tools of an adequate defense," including funding to hire an investigator, a full evaluation by the forensic staff at the Mississippi State Hospital and the services of an independent psychologist.
Prosecutors said Loden was aware of the proceedings that were taking place in the state court and actively participated in a question-and-answer session during his guilty plea.
The 5th Circuit held that Loden's arguments were countered by his decision that his trial lawyers not question prosecution witnesses or put any evidence at a sentencing hearing to help him avoid the death penalty.
But American Bar Association attorneys said in briefs that if the 5th Circuit decision is upheld it would tend "to predetermine no-prejudice findings precisely when counsel has been the least diligent.
"The more deficient the investigation, the less mitigating evidence will be available, and the more likely it is that the defendant will have no viable options other than waiver," the ABA said.