Van Tran v. Colson, No. 11-5867 (6th Cir. 2014)Annotate this Case
Van Tran was born in 1966 in Vietnam, the son of an American serviceman who died two years later. He lived in poverty, and as a child, suffered severe social deprivation. He attended one year of school in the U.S., and dropped out in 1984. In 1987, Van Tran and three others robbed a Memphis restaurant, from which he had been fired. Three people were killed and a 75-year-old woman was beaten unconscious. Van Tran twice shot a 74-year-old woman and shot another victim in the face. He confessed participation in the robbery, was convicted of three counts of felony murder, and was sentenced to death for each on the basis of aggravating circumstances, that the murder was “especially cruel in that it involved depravity of mind.” The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the convictions, but reversed his death sentence for two murders, finding that there was sufficient evidence that killing the older woman evinced “depravity of mind.” Van Tran sought state post-conviction relief, claiming ineffective assistance and that he should not be executed because he is mentally retarded and incompetent. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed denial of relief, noting that Van Tran’s I.Q. was above 70. Van Tran moved to reopen his petition in 2000, alleging that new evidence established that he was mentally retarded. The Tennessee Supreme Court announced that execution of mentally retarded persons was prohibited by the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions. On remand, the court denied relief, finding that Van Tran had not demonstrated the existence of deficits in adaptive behavior nor the manifestation of deficits before the age of 18. The appellate court agreed. The district court denied federal habeas relief. The Sixth Circuit remanded to allow the state court to apply the proper standard in assessing whether Van Tran is intellectually disabled such that his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment under Atkins v. Virginia. The court affirmed on the issues of whether, as applied, the “heinous, atrocious, or cruel” aggravating circumstance of the jury instruction violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments; and whether Van Tran’s penalty phase counsel was ineffective.