TEXT :: Petitioner was convicted by a jury of, among other offenses, brutally murdering a local barkeeper. At the sentencing phase of the bifurcated proceeding, Petitioner’s counsel presented the brief testimony of only five mitigation witnesses. Balancing the evidence, the jury found three aggravating factors and two mitigating factors, concluded that the aggravators outweighed the mitigators, and sentenced Petitioner to death. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed both Petitioner’s conviction and his sentence.
With the aid of new counsel, Petitioner filed for post-conviction relief under a Pennsylvania statute, claiming, inter alia, ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The post-conviction court denied relief, finding that the trial counsel’s investigation into possible mitigating factors was adequate. The state supreme court agreed and affirmed the denial of post-conviction relief.
Having exhausted his state remedies, Petitioner applied for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, renewing his claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted Petitioner’s request for relief, holding that the state post-conviction court had “unreasonably applied” the framework that the United States Supreme Court had developed in Strickland v. Washington during the penalty portion of Petitioner’s criminal trial. On appeal, a split Third Circuit reversed; the majority held that the state post-conviction court’s application of the Strickland standard was not unreasonable and that Petitioner’s case was distinguishable from Wiggins v. Smith, the Court’s then-most-recent case regarding ineffective assistance of counsel. The Third Circuit denied Petitioner’s request for a rehearing en banc and Petitioner appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court granted certiorari and, reversing the decision of the Third Circuit, HELD, that when the prosecution is likely to utilize specific aggravating evidence during capital sentencing, the Sixth Amendment requires a reasonable attempt by defense counsel to procure and examine that evidence, despite intimations by the defendant that investigation into a mitigation case will be fruitless.
The Sixth Amendment guards the rights of the accused, and it specifically guarantees a criminal defendant the “Assistance of Counsel.” Within the body of Sixth Amendment jurisprudence, the Court has continually refined what constitutes assistance in light of its importance in “protect[ing] the fundamental right to a fair trial.” Indeed, even after interpretation of Sixth Amendment language had broadened to include occasions where counsel was merely ineffective rather than absent, lower courts applied a number of different standards to decide when counsel’s performance crossed into constitutional deficiency.
In Strickland v. Washington, the Court finally established the proper standard for measuring defense counsel’s performance against the requirements of the Sixth Amendment. Articulating a framework within which future ineffective assistance of counsel claims could be analyzed, the Court required a two- part showing. First, a defendant bore the burden of demonstrating that “counsel’s performance was deficient.” Second, even after establishing counsel’s inadequacy, a defendant had to demonstrate that the “deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” Without proving both prongs, the Court concluded, a defendant could not complain that “the conviction or death sentence resulted from a breakdown in the adversary process that render[ed] the result unreliable.”
Having sketched a sturdy skeleton, the Strickland Court clarified its newly adopted framework by establishing standards by which each prong would be measured. Deficient performance, according to the Court, should be a totality of the circumstances analysis, weighing whether counsel provided “reasonably effective assistance” as judged by “prevailing professional norms.” Similarly, prejudice should be measured by the “reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors,” the proceeding would have culminated in a different result.
November 2015, Vol. 67, No. 6
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