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Strickland v. Washington

    Brief Fact Summary. Respondent Strickland, a prisoner on death row challenging his conviction and sentence, argues that he would not have been sentenced to death but for his court-appointed attorney’s poor trial strategy.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Court refined the Sixth Amendment’s “assistance of counsel” standard, holding that to be truly “ineffective assistance,” counsel’s performance must be (1) deficient and (2) actually prejudicial.

    Facts. Respondent Strickland was charged with a 10-day crime spree that included a string of murders, kidnapping, torture, assaults, theft, and attempted extortion. Ignoring the advice of his court-appointed attorney, he plead guilty and waived his statutory right to an advisory jury. After his conviction, Respondent now appeals, alleging that his attorney’s trial strategy was fundamentally flawed, and that he should have presented more testimony regarding his mental state

    Issue. What standard should determine “ineffective assistance of counsel”? Did the defendant’s counsel meet this standard?

    Held. Yes, defendant’s counsel was effective. Lower court affirmed. In order for counsel to be deemed truly “ineffective,” it must be:
    Deficient. Counsel’s actions must be truly unreasonable. Courts should be highly deferential to counsel’s decisions and performance, so this standard requires a showing of something beyond simple negligence or poor judgment.

    Actually Prejudicial. Defendant must be able to further demonstrate that this behavior had a demonstrable effect on the outcome. While this is not a “more likely than not” test, it does require that the defendant demonstrate that counsel’s actions deprived him of a fair trial.

    Dissent. Justice Marshall argues that this reasonableness standard does not adequately protect a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights.

    Discussion. This is a very high standard. Courts prefer not to have to assess various trial strategies, as attorneys are generally presumed to be competent and different people will inevitably make different choices. Essentially, any attorney who puts a reasonable effort into a case (as Strickland’s seems to have done) will be safe from an ineffective assistance.


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