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Strickland v. Washington

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Washington (Plaintiff) was sentenced to death for his involvement in three brutal stabbing murders, and then sought collateral relief, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel at his sentencing hearing

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    In order to reverse a conviction or death sentence because of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant has to demonstrate the deficiency of counsel’s performance and that the deficiency prejudiced the defense

    Facts.

    Washington (Plaintiff) planned and committed three brutal stabbing murders, along with other crimes and then he surrendered to police, voluntarily confessing to the third murder.  Against the advice of counsel, Plaintiff also confessed to the first two murders, waived his right to a jury trial, pleaded guilty to all charges, and waived his right to an advisory jury at his capital sentencing hearing.  At that hearing, counsel did not present psychiatric evidence, choosing to emphasize Plaintiff’s remorse and acceptance of responsibility.  The trial judge sentenced Plaintiff to death.  The Florida Supreme Court upheld the convictions.  Plaintiff sought collateral relief for alleged ineffective assistance of counsel at his sentencing hearing.  The district court found no prejudice from any errors in judgment made by counsel.  The court of appeals reversed and remanded.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari

    Issue.

    In order to reverse a conviction or death sentence because of ineffective assistance of counsel, must a defendant demonstrate the deficiency of counsel’s performance and that the deficiency prejudiced the defense?

    Held.

    (O’Connor, J.)  Yes.  In order to reverse a conviction or death sentence because of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant has to demonstrate the deficiency of counsel’s performance and that the deficiency prejudiced the defense.  The proper standard is that of reasonably effective assistance.  Reasonableness must be determined on the facts of each particular case, viewed as of the time of counsel’s conduct.  Also, the reasonableness of counsel’s actions may be determined or substantially influenced by the defendant’s own statements or actions.  In this case, the conduct of Plaintiff’s counsel at and before the sentencing proceeding was clearly not unreasonable.  In addition, his strategy choice, though unsuccessful, was well within the range of professionally reasonable judgments, and the decision not to seek more character or psychological evidence than was already known was also reasonable.  The judgment of the court of appeals is reversed

    Dissent.

    (Marshall, J.)  If counsel had further investigated the availability of mitigating evidence, he may have decided to present evidence at the hearing.  If he had, there is a significant chance that Washington (Plaintiff) would have been given a life sentence only.  Those facts are more than enough to establish a violation of the Sixth Amendment and to entitle Plaintiff to a new sentencing proceeding

    Discussion.

    The purpose of the effective assistance guarantee of the Sixth Amendment is to make sure criminal defendants receive a fair trial, not to improve the quality of legal representation.  However, some commentators have argued that a higher standard than that used in Strickland should apply in death penalty cases.  Such a standard might have required Plaintiff’s attorney to actually obtain psychiatric or character evidence prior to dismissing its usefulness.


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