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Oklahoma Man Sentenced to Death Granted Evidentiary Hearing to Demonstrate Brain Damage

Citation: United States v. Fields, No. 17-7031 (10th Cir. 2019)

Summary: In June 2005, Edward Leon Fields (36-years-old at the time of offense) pled guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of using a firearm in a federal crime of violence causing the death of a person and two assimilative crimes. Fields was sentenced to death on the two murder convictions and given substantial prison terms on the remaining charges in connection with a double murder that occurred in the Oklahoma National Forest. On post-conviction appeal, the defendant raised an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, arguing that his counsel failed to adequately investigate and present evidence of his “organic brain damage” during the sentencing phase. Fields argued that the district court abused its discretion and erred in failing to conduct an evidentiary hearing on this claim. Fields alleged that his counsel conducted limited neuropsychological testing prior to the sentencing phase which indicated deficiencies in frontal lobe function.  However, declining the advice of the administering neuropsychologist, further testing was not pursued or presented at trial by counsel. Fields argued that this deprived the jury of hearing relevant mitigating factors about the extent of the damage to his frontal lobe and its effects on his behavior. Notably, though Fields received a 2011 MRI (post-conviction) which did not indicate “frontal lobe or other meaningful brain damage” according to an expert for the state, the court concluded that this did not necessarily undermine Fields’s arguments, stating:

“there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether an individual, such as Fields, can have organic brain damage that is revealed by neuropsychological testing, but that does not otherwise appear on an MRI of the brain. Therefore, we in turn conclude that the district court erred in basing its conclusion of no prejudice solely on the 2011 MRI results.”

United States v. Fields, No. 17-7031 (10th Cir. 2019)

The case was remanded for further evidentiary hearings to further explore the merits of the claim.

Key words: Ineffective assistance of counsel, frontal lobe, organic brain damage, death penalty, neuropsychology