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FLORIDA v. NIXON, 543 U.S. ---

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No. 03-931.Argued November 2, 2004--Decided December 13, 2004

Respondent Nixon was arrested for a brutal murder. Questioned by the police, Nixon described in graphic detail how he had kidnaped and killed his victim. After gathering overwhelming evidence of his guilt, the State indicted Nixon for first-degree murder and related crimes. Assistant public defender Corin, assigned to represent Nixon, filed a plea of not guilty and deposed all of the State's potential witnesses. Satisfied that Nixon's guilt was not subject to reasonable dispute, Corin commenced plea negotiations, but the prosecutors refused to recommend a sentence other than death. Faced with the inevitability of going to trial on a capital charge, and a strong case for the prosecution, Corin concluded that his best course would be to concede Nixon's guilt, thereby preserving credibility for penalty phase evidence of Nixon's mental instability, and for defense pleas to spare Nixon's life. Corin several times attempted to explain this strategy to Nixon, but Nixon remained unresponsive, never verbally approving or protesting the proposed strategy. Overall, Nixon gave Corin very little, if any, assistance or direction in preparing the case.

When trial began, Nixon engaged in disruptive behavior and absented himself from most of the proceedings. In his opening statement, Corin acknowledged Nixon's guilt and urged the jury to focus on the penalty phase. During the State's case in chief, Corin objected to the introduction of crime scene photographs as unduly prejudicial, cross-examined witnesses for clarification, and contested several aspects of the jury instructions. In his closing argument, Corin again conceded Nixon's guilt, declaring that he hoped to persuade the jury during the penalty phase that Nixon should not be sentenced to death. The jury found Nixon guilty on all counts. At the penalty phase, Corin argued to the jury that Nixon was not "an intact human being" and had committed the murder while afflicted with multiple mental disabilities. Corin called as witnesses relatives and friends who described Nixon's childhood emotional troubles and his erratic behavior preceding the murder. Corin also presented expert testimony concerning Nixon's antisocial personality, history of emotional instability and psychiatric care, low IQ, and possible brain damage. In his closing argument, Corin emphasized Nixon's youth, the psychiatric evidence, and the jury's discretion to consider any mitigating circumstances; urged that, if not sentenced to death, Nixon would never be released; maintained that the death penalty was not appropriate for a person with Nixon's impairments; and asked the jury to spare Nixon's life. The jury recommended, and the trial court imposed, the death penalty.

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