Strickland v. Washington: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

How does a court decide if an attorney has been ineffective?

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In Strickland v. Washington (1986) the U.S. Supreme Court designed standards for determining when an attorney’s assistance has been so ineffective that it creates a violation of the Sixth Amendment.

Fast Facts: Strickland v. Washington

  • Case Argued: January 10, 1984
  • Decision Issued: May 14, 1984
  • Petitioner: Charles E. Strickland, Superintendent, Florida State Prison
  • Respondent: David Leroy Washington
  • Key Questions: Is there a standard for courts to use when evaluating claims of ineffective counsel?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Burger, Brennan, White, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist Stevens, O’Connor
  • Dissenting: Justice Thurgood Marshall
  • Ruling: David Washington's attorney provided effective assistance, in accordance with Sixth Amendment requirements. In order to prove ineffective assistance, a defendant must show that his or her attorney’s performance was deficient and that the deficiency prejudiced the defense so much that it changed the outcome of the legal proceeding.

Facts of the Case

David Washington participated in a 10-day crime spree that included three stabbings, burglary, assault, kidnapping, torture, attempted extortion, and theft. He was indicted for three counts of first-degree murder and multiple counts of kidnapping and robbery in the state of Florida. Washington confessed to two murders against his counsel’s advice. He waived his right to a jury trial and plead guilty to all charges against him, including three counts of murder in which he could receive capital punishment.

At his plea hearing, Washington told the judge he had committed the burglaries, which escalated to more serious crimes, while under extreme financial stress. He said he had no prior record. The judge told Washington he had a great deal of respect for people who are willing to admit responsibility.

At the sentencing hearing, Washington’s attorney chose not to present any character witnesses. He did not order a psychiatric evaluation of his client. The judge sentenced Washington to death, finding no mitigating circumstances to decide otherwise. Washington eventually filed a writ of habeas corpus in a Florida federal district court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, remanding the case down to district court to determine whether or not a “totality of the circumstances” suggested Washington’s counsel had been ineffective. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Arguments

Washington argued that his counsel failed to conduct a proper investigation leading up to the sentencing hearing. This left his attorney unable to offer evidence during the hearing, damaging Washington's overall defense. In oral arguments, the attorney before the Supreme Court argued that any standard for deciding whether counsel has been “reasonably competent” should take into account whether or not counsel's failure to offer adequate assistance harmed the defense.

The state of Florida argued that the Court should consider the overall fairness of the trial and whether or not the attorney acted out of prejudice. While Washington’s attorney may not have done everything perfectly, he did what he believed was in the best interest of his client, the state argued. Additionally, the actions of Washington’s attorney did not alter the fundamental fairness of the sentencing proceeding; even if the attorney had acted differently, the outcome would have been similar.

Constitutional Issues

How can a court determine when an attorney has been so ineffective in providing advice that a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated?

Majority Opinion

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered the 8-1 decision. The Sixth Amendment right to counsel exists to ensure a fair trial, Justice O'Connor wrote. Having an attorney physically present is not enough to satisfy the Sixth Amendment; the attorney must offer "effective assistance" to their client. If the defendant's counsel fails to offer adequate legal assistance, it jeopardizes the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel and a fair trial.

Justice O'Connor, on behalf of the majority, developed a standard for determining whether an attorney’s conduct “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” The defendant must prove:

  1. Counsel’s performance was deficient. The attorney’s errors were so serious that they prevented the attorney from fulfilling their duty under the Sixth Amendment.
  2. Counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced the defense. The attorney’s actions harmed the defense so badly that it altered the outcome of the trial, depriving the defendant of their right to a fair trial.

Justice O'Connor wrote:

"The defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome."

After detailing the standard itself, Justice O'Connor turned to Washington's case. Washington's attorney strategically chose to focus on his client's sense of remorse because he knew the judge might be sympathetic to it. In light of the seriousness of the crimes, Justice O'Connor concluded that there was no proof additional evidence would have changed the outcome of the sentencing hearing. "Here is a double failure," she wrote, noting that Washington could not succeed under either component of the Court's standard.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented. He argued that the majority's standard was too "malleable" and could have "no grip at all" or allow "excessive variation." Justice Marshall pointed out the fact that terms like "reasonable" were not defined in the opinion, creating uncertainty. He also argued that the Court had discounted the importance of mitigating evidence like character witnesses at sentencing hearings. Washington's attorney had not given his client effective assistance and he deserved a second sentencing hearing, Justice Marshall wrote.

Justice William J. Brennan dissented, in part, because he believed Washington’s death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Impact

Washington was executed in July 1984, two months after the Supreme Court handed down its decision. He had exhausted all avenues of appeal. The Strickland standard was a compromise which sought to create a middle ground between more extreme and more relaxed state and federal standards for ineffectiveness claims. Two decades after the decision, Justice O’Connor called for the Strickland standard to be revisited. She noted that the standards did not account for outside factors, such as partisan judges and lack of legal aid that could contribute to ineffective counsel under the Sixth Amendment. The Strickland standard was applied as recently as 2010 in Padilla v. Kentucky.

Sources

  • Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).
  • Kastenberg, Joshua. “Nearly Thirty Years: The Burger Court, Strickland v. Washington, and the Parameters of the Right to Counsel.” The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, vol. 14, no. 2, 2013, pp. 215–265., https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3100510.
  • White, Lisa. “Strickland v. Washington: Justice O'Connor Revisits Landmark Legislation.” Strickland v. Washington (January-February 2008) - Library of Congress Information Bulletin, https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/08012/oconnor.html.