This Day In Supreme Court History—January 10, 1984

On this day in 1984, Strickland v. Washington was argued at the Supreme Court. This case considered what it meant for a criminal defendant to have the “effective assistance” of counsel, which the Court had previously ruled the Sixth Amendment required.

David Washington waived his right to a jury trial and pleaded guilty to three murders in a Florida court. The judge sentenced him to death. After unsuccessfully appealing in state courts, he took his claim that he lacked effective assistance of counsel at sentencing to federal court. He lost again in the district court, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court then granted certiorari.

At the Supreme Court, Washington’s lawyer, Richard Shapiro, argued that Washington’s defense counsel admitted that he felt helpless upon learning of his client’s murder confessions and this was why he did no independent investigation into his background. The lawyer had no “strategic or tactical choice for this this total lack of investigation,” Shapiro explained to the justices. “When his client’s life was at stake,” this lawyer “could not point … to a single shred of independent evidence that would have advised the judge of a fuller understanding of who David Washington is.”

If Washington’s lawyer had conducted a proper investigation, Shapiro argued, he would have discovered psychiatric and psychological evidence showing “child abuse, deprivation, and neglect as a youth.” When “combined with the extraordinary pressures that were placed on Mr. Washington at the time of the crimes,” this  “led to the severe mental and emotional distress which resulted in his breakdown during that period of time” when the murders took place. A skeptical Justice Rehnquist asked whether a jury would really “buy that.” The defense counsel had failed to present supporting facts, Shapiro responded, and that had the potential to “make the difference.”

Shapiro argued that the Sixth Amendment demanded a test for the adequacy of counsel that was focused on the “impairment of the defense,” rather than the outcome of the case. An outcome determinative test, he argued, “assumes the defendant could have a fair trial with incompetent counsel.” A defense “counsel laboring under a sense of hopelessness,” as Washington’s lawyer was, “ is not the zealous advocate that the Constitution requires and that the sacred professional trust of an attorney requires.” Chief Justice Burger worried that such a standard would “eliminat[e] perhaps two thirds of all the criminal cases that come to trial, at least half.”

Attorney Carolyn Snurkowski argued on behalf of Charles Strickland, the superintendent of Florida state prisons. She laid the blame for the outcome of the trial squarely on Washington. He had acted contrary to the advice of his lawyer by confessing, pleading guilty, and waiving sentencing proceedings. She derisively summarized Washington’s position: “Although I pled guilty, I have no complaints about [my lawyer’s] preparation for trial, although I cut him off at the knees with regard to presenting my case to a jury or to a judge, he was ineffective at the sentencing phase because he did not do certain things.” Snurkowski argued that Washington failed to make a specific allegation about his lawyer’s competency and that he failed to demonstrate that the alleged incompetence led to prejudice or changed the outcome of the case.

On May 14, 1984, the Court ruled, by an 8-1 vote, against Washington. (Justice Marshall dissented.) In her majority opinion, Justice O’Connor held that a court should only find a Sixth Amendment violation for ineffective assistance of counsel in cases where (a) the lawyer’s performance was deficient, meaning that the lawyer failed to meet an “objective standard of reasonableness”; and (b) the deficient performance prejudiced the defense enough to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, which requires that the defendant shows a “reasonable probability” that the result would have been different if the attorney had not erred. The Court found that Washington failed to meet this demanding standard. He would be executed two months later.

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