By: Macey Albert
J.D. Candidate, 2017
Valparaiso University School of Law
For one man, a seemingly great night turned into a long journey through the judicial system. In Thomas v. Clements, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed a man’s conviction where he killed his wife after applying too much pressure on her during sex.
Joyce Oliver-Thomas and Oscar Thomas were married. After nine years of marriage, the two divorced; however, Oliver allowed Thomas to continue living in her apartment where the two continued a sexual relationship. On the night of the incident in question, the police received a call from Thomas saying that Oliver was unconscious. When the police arrived Oliver was unresponsive, eyes open, and without any pulse. She was announced dead at the hospital.
Thomas gave two inconstant statements. He first stated that he left the apartment and came back and found Oliver grabbing her neck in a choking manner. He later stated that he left the apartment and began watching a pornographic movie. When he returned he and Oliver had sex, during which they fell off the bed and continued to have sex. He mentioned that at one point while engaging in sexual activity he had his arm around her neck. Thomas was found guilty by the trial court for unintentionally causing Oliver’s death by putting pressure on her neck for too long during sex. The trial court ruled under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) and Thomas appealed, alleging that the wrong standard was applied.
To prevail on his claim, Thomas had to first show that his counsel’s performance was deficient, meaning it fell below the objective standard of reasonableness. Thomas argued the defense counsel was deficient in failing to consider and consult with a pathologist who would have reviewed the autopsy report and testified. Dr. Mainland’s (the plaintiff’s expert) pretrial testimony showed that Thomas acted intentionally. This corroborated with the testimony of the plaintiff in which he admitted having his arm around her neck before she died, as well as the counsel choosing not to argue the issue of causation. The combination of these factors gave what seemed to be a reasonable inference of intent. There were no signs of fight or struggle between Thomas and Oliver, however. Therefore, counsel should have known there was reason to question a finding of intentional homicide. A responsible counsel would have at least contacted an expert to check if the medical findings could be reconciled.
Next, Thomas had to show that there was a reasonable probability that, but for the counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. The expert mention that strangulation would likely result after four minutes of pressure, meaning there were roughly fifty-five minutes in which Oliver was not being choked to death. All parties admit there was no evidence of external marks on either Thomas or Oliver. Dr. Teas’s testimony in the post-conviction hearing stated that because there were no external bruising on the neck or bone, the necessary injuries of strangulation were missing.
Dr. Teas’s testimony provided that even if Thomas did cause Oliver’s death, it was not intentional. The facts were consistent with an accidental death and sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt; therefore, there was evidence of prejudice for ineffective assistance of counsel purposes. The Seven Circuit ruled that after reviewing the case de novo the counsel’s performance in relation to a pathologist expert was deficient and that Oliver was prejudiced by counsel’s deficient performance.