Strickland v. Washington: Case Brief

Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

The landmark Strickland v. Washington decision set forth the two-part standard for assessing a lawyer's performance at trial. In this lesson, you will learn some of the facts of the case, as well as the major elements of the Supreme Court's famous decision.

Few professionals are as highly regarded as lawyers. Lawyers are called upon to defend those in need, to secure justice for victims of crimes, and to vindicate the rights of those who are wronged. With such responsibility, it's no wonder that lawyers are so well-respected in the communities they serve.

But what about the not-so-great lawyers? How do the courts, and citizens at large, spot the bad apples? In 1984, the United States Supreme Court answered that very question in the famous Strickland v. Washington decision.

Questions Presented in Strickland v. Washington

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to the 'assistance of counsel.' The question presented to the Supreme Court in the Strickland case was: when is a criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel violated by a lawyer's poor performance at trial?

Facts of the Case

David Washington pleaded guilty to three murder charges in a Florida state court. During the sentencing portion of his trial, Washington's lawyer did not present any evidence about Washington's past or about his mental state. In fact, Washington's lawyer had not sought any character witnesses in preparation for sentencing, nor did he request that a mental health expert interview and assess Washington.

The jury, therefore, heard no mitigating evidence to persuade them to show any leniency towards Washington. Ultimately, the jury sentenced Washington to death for his crimes.

Washington appealed his sentence to both state and federal courts, arguing that his lawyer's failure to prepare for and present any evidence at his sentencing violated his Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel. In essence, Washington argued that ineffective assistance of counsel is tantamount to no assistance at all. The Supreme Court heard Washington's case and issued its opinion in 1986.

The Supreme Court's Holding

The Supreme Court created a two-part standard to determine when a lawyer's ineffective assistance violated a defendant's rights under the Sixth Amendment.

First, the defendant must show that the attorney's performance was 'deficient'-- this means that the lawyer's mistakes were 'so serious that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.'

Second, the defendant must show that his lawyer's deficient performance deprived him of a fair trial. This is sometimes referred to as 'prejudice.'

If a defendant can prove ineffective assistance of counsel, a court reviewing the lawyer's performance on appeal will set the judgment aside, and the defendant will get a new trial.

The Supreme Court's Analysis

In crafting this two-part test, the Supreme Court explained that a lawyer's performance can be measured against what is called an 'objective standard of reasonableness'. This standard encompasses the generally accepted professional norms associated with representing a criminal defendant, such as the duty to investigate the client's case, loyalty to the client, and avoiding conflicts of interest. Conduct falling below the objective standard of reasonableness is considered deficient in the context of the Sixth Amendment.

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