Heard February 19, 2014
Appeal from Dorchester County. Perry M. Buckner, Post-Conviction Relief Judge.
Chief Appellate Defender Robert Michael Dudek, of Columbia, for Petitioner.
Attorney General Alan M. Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, and Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, all of Columbia, for the Respondent.
KITTREDGE, JUSTICE. Acting Chief Justice PLEICONES, BEATTY, HEARN, JJ., and Acting Justice James E. Moore, concur.
[409 S.C. 216] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI
We granted a writ of certiorari to review the denial of John Edward Weik's (Weik or Petitioner) application for capital post-conviction relief (PCR). Weik argues the PCR court erred in denying relief on a number of grounds. We reach only the challenge concerning the complete lack of social history mitigation evidence in the sentencing phase. Because of the lack of social history mitigation evidence, we are constrained to reverse and remand for a new sentencing hearing.
Weik was convicted of murdering his former girlfriend following an argument over the couple's child. Weik confessed to the shooting and cooperated with law enforcement. There was never any dispute regarding guilt.
During the sentencing phase, the State proceeded on two aggravating circumstances--burglary and torture. Regarding Weik's mental status, the defense relied on three mental health experts, who all of whom testified that Weik suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, including auditory and visual hallucinations, suicidal ideations, and paranoid delusions. [409 S.C. 217] The defense, however, failed to present readily available evidence concerning Weik's chaotic upbringing and dysfunctional family. It is the absence of the social history mitigation evidence that compels us, under controlling United States Supreme Court precedents, to grant Weik a new sentencing hearing.
Pre-trial interviews conducted with Weik's relatives, coworkers, and other acquaintances revealed Weik's childhood was traumatic, filled with emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his psychotic father, Russell Weik. Indeed, one mitigation specialist with forty years of investigative experience described Weik's family as the most dysfunctional family she had ever encountered.
Despite the wealth of social mitigating information defense investigators discovered about Weik's troubled background, during the penalty phase of the trial, defense counsel called only one witness, Weik's youngest sister, Amy, to testify very briefly about Petitioner's abusive upbringing. This part of Amy's testimony comprises three pages out of a multi-thousand page record. This limited and general testimony offered nothing in terms of specifics, as Weik's childhood was described as merely " rough." When Amy was asked to be " more specific" about Weik, she replied, " the abuse that we suffered, all of us." Cursory and nonspecific reference was made to Weik's father's " military flashbacks." Amy concluded her scant testimony as to Weik's upbringing and childhood by stating that our " father was always paranoid, abusive, I don't know. Something was wrong with him and I don't know exactly what it was."
[409 S.C. 218] No other family members or coworkers were called to testify on Weik's behalf during
the sentencing phase.
The State countered with expert testimony from two mental health experts who both testified Weik did not have schizophrenia, but rather, he suffered from schizotypal personality disorder. The State's forensic psychologist also testified that Weik: (1) was the product of an " intact" family; (2) developed normally; (3) did not experience any childhood behavioral problems; (4) quit high school in eleventh grade; (5) had an average IQ; and (6) did not suffer from any alcohol or drug abuse issues.
At the conclusion of the sentencing hearing, the jury recommended a sentence of death, which the trial court imposed. Weik's conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. State v. Weik, 356 S.C. 76, 587 S.E.2d 683 (2002).
Thereafter, Weik filed a PCR application claiming, among other things, that trial counsel were ineffective for failing to present mitigation evidence relating to his family and social history that was available at the time of his trial. The testimony elicited during the PCR hearing revealed trial counsel's troubling inattention towards preparing for the mitigation phase of trial, despite Petitioner's admission of guilt from the outset of the case.
After the State served notice of intent to seek the death penalty, attorneys Percy Beauford  and Marva Ann Hardee-Thomas  were appointed to represent Weik in July of 1998. [409 S.C. 219] However, it was not until March 1999--a mere eleven weeks prior to trial--that counsel hired investigator Patti Rickborn  to begin a mitigation investigation. Rickborn testified that she met with Beauford and Hardee-Thomas only once, and during that one meeting, it was " absolutely clear" that Hardee-Thomas was to be her contact person. According to Rickborn, she made repeated requests for Hardee-Thomas to provide her investigative leads, names and contact information for the defense mental health experts, and assistance in obtaining a court order for Weik's father's military mental health records; however, despite Rickborn's persistence, Hardee-Thomas gave only evasive replies, promising to respond in the future, or failed to acknowledge Rickborn's requests altogether.
Despite receiving virtually no guidance from defense counsel, Rickborn, an experienced mitigation specialist, began the investigation and was able to provide Hardee-Thomas with a potential witness list for the penalty phase, which included contact information for Weik's parents, siblings, and other family members, a list of places from which to obtain records, as well as detailed investigative interviews with Weik's family members that revealed pervasive mental health issues throughout the Weik family and that Weik endured severe emotional, psychological, and physical abuse during his childhood. Rickborn provided all of this information to Hardee-Thomas but received no response.
[409 S.C. 220] Approximately six or seven weeks after being hired, an ...