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Wiggins v. Smith

Citation. Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 123 S. Ct. 2527, 156 L. Ed. 2d 471, 71 U.S.L.W. 4560, 2003 Cal. Daily Op. Service 5586, 2003 Daily Journal DAR 7015, 16 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 459 (U.S. June 26, 2003)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Defendant on trial for murder argued that his attorney failed by not examining his background and other mitigating evidence of his life.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

“In assessing [a] counsel’s investigation, [the court] must conduct an objective review of their performance, measured for ‘reasonableness under prevailing professional norms’ which includes a context-dependent consideration of the challenged conduct as seen ‘from counsel’s perspective at the time.’”


Petitioner Wiggins was tried and convicted for the murder of an elderly woman. He was represented by two attorneys, Nethercott and Schlaich. He elected to be tried before a judge, and was convicted. He elected to be sentenced by a jury, and received a death sentence. Nethercott first stated that the jury would hear evidence that someone other than the petitioner was guilty. She also stated that petitioner “has had a difficult life.” However, the counsel presented no evidence to demonstrate that fact. Defendant was sentenced to death. In his appeal, the petitioner challenged the adequacy of his initial counsel, arguing that the counsel had failed to investigate his dysfunctional background. The petitioner brought forth testimony from a social worker detailing the petitioner’s childhood of abuse. Schlaich testified that he did not remember retaining a social worker, instead opting for a strategy of “retry[ing] the factual case.” The trial court held that when the deci
sion not to investigate is a tactical one, “there is no ineffective assistance of counsel.” This was affirmed by the Maryland Court of Appeals. Petitioner filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court, which found that the counsel should have looked further. The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the counsel had sufficient grounds to make a strategic decision.


Whether an “attorney’s failure to investigate [a defendant’s] background and present mitigating evidence of his unfortunate life history at his capital sentencing proceedings violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.”


Yes. Applying a test of reasonableness to the counsels’ decision, the Supreme Court first found that the investigation “drew from three sources:” a psychologist; a written PSI, including a “one-page account of Wiggins’ personal history,” and; records from the Baltimore City Department of Social Services (DSS). Counsel’s decision not to expand “their investigation beyond the.

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