West Law Report

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel for Capital defendant

A leading case summery of Harvard Law Review: Schriro v. Landrigan (2007) (11 pages)

Sixth Amendment — Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Capital defendants are not always cooperative or repentant, even at sentencing hearings determinative of their fates. Some death penalty defendants may refuse to aid in investigation of mitigating evidence, or they may actively obstruct presentation of it during the sentencing phase. Others may flaunt the purposeful nature of their killings, their lack of remorse, or their willingness to be put to death for their crimes. Courts must be aware, however, that this behavior may be due to mental illness or caused by physical and emotional abuse, a genetic disorder, or drug addiction — characteristics that may reduce a defendant’s moral culpability.

Last Term, in Schriro v. Landrigan, the Supreme Court upheld a state court’s finding that a defendant who refused to allow the presentation of mitigating evidence from his family members was not prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to investigate fully or to present other sorts of mitigating evidence. Thus, the Court held, the defendant was not entitled to an evidentiary hearing on the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court failed to analyze the context of Landrigan’s refusal, including unique concerns about particular mitigating evidence and the defendant’s background — factors that may have explained his statements and behavior. Moreover, the Court did not consider the defendant’s refusal in the context of its waiver precedents or the importance of mitigating evidence. Courts should not expand a limited refusal to present only some mitigating evidence into a complete refusal to present any mitigating evidence, nor should they allow recalcitrant behavior at sentencing to justify eradication of a defendant’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.

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