Strickland v. Washington
466 U.S. 668, 104 S. Ct. 2052, 80 L. Ed.2d 674 (1984)

  • Strickland went on a crime spree and killed three people during various robberies. He turned himself in and confessed to one murder.
  • He was appointed legal counsel, and against the counsel’s advice, he confessed to the other murders and pled guilty.
  • Because of the nature of the crime, Strickland was eligible for the death penalty. His appointed counsel gathered some information in his defense, but gave up, citing Strickland’s case to be ‘hopeless’. Instead he decided to focus on Strickland’s remorse for the crime, as opposed to focusing on mitigating factors.
    • The counsel did not seek a psychological evaluation because he believed Strickland to be sane.
  • The Trial Court sentenced Strickland to death. He appealed.
  • The Florida Supreme Court affirmed.
  • Strickland filed a writ of habeus corpus claiming that he had ineffective counsel during the sentencing process.
    • Strickland argued that his counsel should have asked for more time to prepare for the hearing, requested a psychiatric report, uncovered and presented more character witnesses, sought a pre-sentence investigation report, presented more meaningful arguments to the sentencing judge, and investigated and cross-examined the medical examiner’s reports.
  • The Trial Court denied the writ. Strickland appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that the evidence against Strickland was so overwhelming that it didn’t matter what his counsel did. The result would have been the same.
  • Strickland filed a writ of habeus corpus in Federal Court.
  • The Federal Trial Court affirmed. Strickland appealed.
  • The Federal Appellate Court reversed. The prosecutor appealed.
    • The Federal Appellate Court found that in order to establish lack of effective counsel, Strickland had to show an “actual or substantial disadvantage,” and should be retried to see if he could meet that standard.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed the Federal Appellate Court and upheld the sentence.
    • The US Supreme Court found that in order to obtain relief due to ineffective assistance of counsel, the burden is on the criminal defendant to show:
      • “That counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and,
      • That counsel’s deficient performance gives rise to a reasonable probability that, if counsel had performed adequately, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”
    • In this case, the Court found that the counsel’s strategy was reasonable considering the circumstances, and that additional mitigating evidence would probably not have changed the outcome.
      • If the counsel had brought up Strickland’s character, it would have allowed the prosecution to have brought up a lot of bad character evidence in response (remember Evidence class?). It wasn’t unreasonable to tactically do what the counsel did in this case.
    • The Court noted that there is a strong presumption of reasonableness, and the Court is going to be maximally deferential to the tactical decisions made by counsel.
      • The Court didn’t want lawyers second guessing their tactical decisions because they were worried they might get sued about it.
  • One problem with the two part test that the Court uses is that in most cases the error is an error of omission (the lawyer didn’t ask the right questions or present the right witnesses), and that will not show up on the record. So it can be difficult for a defendant to make a case based on errors in the record.
  • Another problem with the Court’s test is that it counsel is only deemed ineffective if their performance falls well below the norm. That gives States an incentive to keep their norm pretty low. If all the public defenders are pretty bad, then none will ever get singled out for ineffectiveness.
    • Note that the average budget for a State prosecutor’s office is 25x the average budget for a State public defender’s office.