Search About Newsletters Donate
Support independent, nonprofit journalism.

Become a member of The Marshall Project during our summer membership drive. Our journalism has tremendous power to drive change, but we can’t do it without your support.

Case in Point

Justice Poker

Sometimes capital punishment is just the luck of the draw.

It’s hard to fathom a life more miserable than the life Renard Marcel Daniel has lived. Born into a world of chaos and violence, sexually abused as a child, laboring through his early teenage years in and out of school with significant intellectual disabilities, Daniel today sits in an Alabama prison for a double-murder he committed in September 2001. Convicted in 2003, he spent more than a decade on the state’s death row until, in 2016, he caught a break .

A random draw of federal appeals court judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals spun out three jurists, all of them appointed by Democratic presidents, who found in Daniel’s appeals merit the state courts of Alabama had not found. The panel unanimously concluded in May 2016 that Daniel’s lawyers likely had failed to provide him with competent representation during the penalty phase of his trial. And so the 11th Circuit returned the case to the lower federal courts for an evidentiary hearing.

For years before this appeals court ruling, Daniel’s new lawyers had urged state attorneys to acknowledge their client’s obvious cognitive deficiencies. For years Daniel’s appellate attorneys had asked state judges to allow them to conduct discovery to highlight the ways in which trial attorneys had failed to present a reasonable defense for Daniel during the penalty phase of his case. And for years Alabama prosecutors and judges had refused. Didn’t just refuse on the merits of what Daniel’s attorneys were arguing but refused even to hold an evidentiary hearing to allow him to substantiate his claims.

In preparation for the hearing the 11th Circuit ordered, state attorneys at last sent their own expert witness, a doctor, to test Daniel for intellectual disability. The result was a finding of an IQ of 48, far below the standard the U.S. Supreme Court has set as a minimum for the execution of the intellectually disabled. Faced with this medical reality, and strong allegations that Daniel’s trial attorneys really had let him down, state attorneys finally conceded. Early this month, Alabama agreed to vacate Daniel’s death sentence and turn it into a life sentence without parole. A court is expected to finalize the deal in the coming weeks.

The prime lesson of the Daniel case isn’t that the state kept on death row for a decade a man who probably should not have been there. That happens often enough, in Alabama and other jurisdictions. The lesson here is that by sheer luck — a panel assignment under the 11th Circuit’s administrative rules — Daniel drew three federal judges into his case who were willing to act on his behalf. There are other judges on the 11th Circuit who might have been assigned to this case who likely would have rejected Daniel’s appeal and then justified the decision to do so with the same arguments Alabama’s judges used for so long. Maybe the U.S. Supreme Court, as Daniel’s execution grew near at some point, would have rescued him. Or maybe not. The truth is, with that 11th Circuit panel, Renard Marcel Daniel for once got lucky, if you consider a life sentence without chance of parole better than the death penalty.

When Renard Daniel was three years old his mother killed his father with a shotgun. The little boy was in the house at the time. When Daniel was seven his mother remarried a man — a Vietnam veteran who reportedly suffered psychological damage from his duty — who she says came to terrorize the whole family for the next four years. Daniel’s stepfather, a man with a violent and uncontrollable temper, allegedly walked around the house brandishing a gun and a sash of bullets and “regularly beat” Daniel’s mother “and threatened her with various forms of torture.”

This man also regularly beat Daniel. Once the beating was so severe Daniel’s kidney ruptured and he had to be hospitalized and taken from the family home. Why the boy was returned there, and what might have happened had he been placed more permanently in the care of the state, remains a tragic mystery. Soon enough, Daniel was back in that dangerous home. At age ten, and for years afterward, he was sexually abused by his stepfather and forced to engage in sex with his siblings while his stepfather watched.

He was soon placed in special education classes in school after he was discovered to have trouble both learning and following directions. When he was 13 years old, school records revealed, he was reading at a second-grade level. His math skills also were considered “severely deficient.” Here was an intellectually disabled young black man — “experiencing nonverbal and verbal comprehension difficulties,” is how the Birmingham Public Schools Guidance Department put it — whose life story screamed out for the sort of institutional help that never came or, more accurately, came way too late.

The story fast forwards now to 2001. And Daniel now is an adult and living in an apartment building in Birmingham. On the night of September 26, 2001, Daniel had a few beers and smoked a joint with a friend, George Jackson, and then went next door to play cards with a white couple, John Broadie and Loretta McCulloch, who by that time were very drunk. They played and then Broadie called Daniel his “Brother Nigger.” That set Daniel off, Jackson later told the police. Daniel argued with Broadie, Jackson testified, and then pulled out a pistol. Jackson says Daniel then shot the two victims, execution-style.

It didn’t take long for the police to come for Daniel. Jackson’s testimony incriminated his friend, and detectives found physical evidence linking Daniel to the crime. At trial, Daniel testified in his own defense and told jurors that it was Jackson who had fired the fatal shots. Jurors didn’t believe him. A panel of seven white jurors and five black ones convicted him quickly. Then something extraordinary happened. Five minutes after jurors returned their guilty verdict the trial judge tried to start the sentencing phase of the case. Daniel’s attorneys asked for an adjournment, until the next morning, to collect themselves. The judge gave them 30 minutes instead.

Prosecutors presented no witnesses during this phase. Daniel’s trial attorneys brought to the stand his mother, who testified briefly about her son’s troubled upbringing. She identified only one specific instance of the abuse Daniel had endured at the hands of his stepfather. And then her testimony ended. Just two hours and twenty minutes after the penalty phase begin it ended with another jury verdict; this time a 10-2 verdict in favor of death. Because Alabama still allows non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases Daniel was sent to death row to await his appeals and, ultimately, an execution date.

Daniel’s trial lawyers, private practitioners appointed by the court, did not stick around after the imposition of their client’s death sentence. The 11th Circuit tells us that “immediately after imposing the sentence the trial court granted trial counsel’s request to be relieved of any further responsibility in Mr. Daniel’s case.” Next came the appeals, with new lawyers representing Daniel, and a series of rulings by state and federal courts rejecting those appeals. Daniel had not sufficiently laid out his proof that his trial lawyers were incompetent, state attorneys argued and judges agreed, and the defense could not overcome the hurdles imposed on these sorts of cases by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the federal statute designed to expedite appeals.

But Daniel did have a strong “ineffective assistance of counsel” case. In fact, he had a compelling one. Daniel could not afford an attorney, so his trial judge appointed two to represent him in the capital case. The first lawyer assigned to Daniel was Katheree Hughes. The second was Danita Haskins. Both had some experience with capital trials around that time. Neither returned my phone calls seeking their comment on how they handled the Daniel’s case and what they thought of the 11th Circuit ruling that is so critical of their work.

What does “ineffective assistance of counsel” look like? Here’s what Daniel’s current attorneys alleged, what they told the 11th Circuit they would be able to prove at that evidentiary hearing that has been canceled as a result of the settlement in the case. Remember as you read this account that state attorneys were aware of these allegations for years and fought to defend the capital sentence despite those allegations. Remember, too, that some of these allegations may have fallen away by conflicting testimony during the hearing.

Daniel says he first met his trial attorneys at the preliminary hearing in his case in October 2001, about three weeks after the murders, and then never spoke to them again for 16 months, until three days before the start of his death penalty trial. That gap alone raises questions about the commitment Daniel’s defense team brought to the case. Over and over again during those 16 months Daniel and one of his fellow inmates wrote to Daniel’s attorneys seeking a meeting between them and Daniel. Over and over again the attorneys allegedly ignored his requests.

Things got so bad, in fact, that Daniel was able to get a complaint through to the Alabama Bar Association about the lack of representation he was receiving in the run-up to his trial. When his lawyers finally did meet with him, he says, they were more interested in talking about his bar complaint than they were in discussing the case with him. Daniel alleges that his family fared no better in getting through to his trial attorneys. His mother tried repeatedly to talk to lead counsel, Hughes, but say they got only a 20-minute phone call with him in which he “expressed no interest in meeting” Daniel’s mother “or having further discussions.” Daniel’s sister also claims she tried to call Hughes but could not get through. She says she even drove from Atlanta to Birmingham to see the lawyer but that he was “unavailable.”

In these circumstances it is not hard to understand why jurors heard so little about Daniel’s upbringing during the mitigation portion of the penalty phase of his trial. None of the details of Daniel’s life until the moment of the murder would likely have spared him a conviction. This is not a case with an innocence claim at its core. But any one of these details of abuse and intellectual disability might have spared him from a death sentence. His trial lawyers did not make a “tactical” or “strategic” choice not to share this information with jurors. If you believe the Daniel family, his trial attorneys didn’t present this evidence because they did not take the time to discover it.