Ineffective assistance of counsel (United States)

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Ineffective assistance of counsel means that a lawyer (counsel) did not help their client defend themselves during a trial. "Ineffective assistance of counsel" is a complaint that a person can make if they have been convicted of a crime, and they want to argue that their trial was not fair.

"Ineffective" means that something, or someone, did not work the way it should have. "Assistance" means "help." "Counsel" is a legal word for "lawyer." So by making a complaint of "ineffective assistance of counsel," a person is saying "my defense attorney did not help me enough."

The right to a lawyer[change | change source]

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution says: "the accused shall enjoy the right ... to have the assistance of counsel for his defence."[1] When a person says they had ineffectiveness of counsel, they are saying their lawyer was so bad that they did not receive this right to a lawyer.

Unfortunately, the Sixth Amendment only said that people had the right to have a lawyer. It did not give any more details about this right. Here are some examples of things it did not say:[2]

  • Was any lawyer good enough? Did he have to be a good lawyer? If so, how good?
  • How could the laws measure whether a lawyer was good enough to give a client a fair trial?
  • If a defendant got an unfair trial because of ineffective assistance of counsel, what should happen to the defendant?

Strickland v. Washington[change | change source]

The Supreme Court tried to answer some of these questions in a case called Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). In this case, the court ruled that there were two things a defendant would have to show in order to prove that they had ineffective assistance of counsel. This became known as the "Strickland test":[3]

  1. Their lawyer made mistakes that were "so serious that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment."
  2. The lawyer's mistakes prevented the defendant from having a fair trial. If the defendant had a competent attorney, the result of their trial would have been different. They would have been found not guilty and set free, or they would have gotten a sentence less severe than the death penalty

This second part was important. After Stirickland, the states' appeals courts ruled that convictions were legal even in cases where the defense attorney:

  • Fell asleep during the trial[4]
  • Was drunk throughout the trial[5]
  • Was senile[6]
  • Was mentally ill and talking about his delusions during the trial[7]
  • Was a convicted felon who was working on writing questions in court as part of his punishment (he had no legal training).[8]

There was an important reason why these cases did not qualify as "ineffective assistance of counsel." The prisoners who brought the cases to the Supreme Court could not prove the second piece of the "Strickland test."[2] They could not prove that if they had different lawyers, their trials would have turned out differently. There was so much evidence against them, and they were so obviously guilty, that the appeals courts decided having a different lawyer would not have made any difference. No lawyer could have saved these cases, the state courts basically said.

Ineffective counsel & the death penalty[change | change source]

The issue of ineffective counsel is important in the debate over capital punishment in the United States. The University of Michigan Law School keeps a list of people who have been exonerated from death row. The list counts "exonerations" as cases where "a person who has been convicted of a crime is officially cleared based on new evidence of innocence."[9]

According to the list, between 1989 and 2015, 116 people have been exonerated from death row.[10] Over one out of every four[a] of these people were exonerated because an appeals court ruled they had received ineffective assistance of counsel.[10]

Related pages[change | change source]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. Specifically, 31 people, or 27%, were exonerated because of ineffective assistance of counsel.[10]

References[change | change source]

  1. Madison, James; et al. (1789). "Bill of Rights". Charters of Freedom. United States National Archives and Records Museum. Retrieved March 26, 2016.
  2. 2.0 2.1 McKay, Casey Scott (2013). "Constitutional Law—The Plea- Bargaining Process—Mr. Counsel, Please Bargain Effectively For Your Client's Sixth Amendment Rights, Otherwise the Trial Court Will Be Forced To Reoffer The Plea Deal and Then Exercise Discretion in Resentencing" (PDF). Mississippi Law Journal. 82 (3): 731–750. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 15, 2016. Retrieved March 27, 2016.
  3. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).
  4. Muniz v. Smith, 647 F.3d 619 (6th Cir. 2011).
  5. People v. Garrison, 47 Cal. 3d 746 (1989).
  6. Bellamy v. Cogdell, 974 F.2d 302 (2d Cir. 1992).
  7. Smith v. Ylst, 826 F.2d 872 (9th Cir. 1987).
  8. State v. Wille, 595 So. 2d 1149 (La. 1992).
  9. "Glossary". The National Registry of Exonerations. University of Michigan Law School. 2016. Retrieved March 24, 2016.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 "Detailed View [Sentence: Death]". The National Registry of Exonerations. University of Michigan Law School. 2016. Retrieved March 24, 2016.