Supreme Court Sends Death Penalty Case Back for Reconsideration Of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim

Posted on Thursday, July 9th, 2020 at 8:00 am    

–But Skips Its Chance to Modify Prejudice Prong of Strickland

In a 5-3 per curiam decision, the United States Supreme Court stopped short of doing what the habeas corpus petitioner asked it to do: modify or overrule the prejudice prong of Strickland v. Washington (1984), 466 U.S. 668, in the review of a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. However, a majority of the Court in Andrus v. Texas (2020), 590 U.S. ___, found that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ one-sentence dismissal of Andrus’s claim “without elaboration” was insufficient to support a determination that no prejudice occurred. It remanded the case for reconsideration of that issue.

Andrus was convicted of the murders of two people during a bungled carjacking. Trial counsel put on no defense during the guilt phase of the trial, opting instead to focus on the penalty phase. However, trial counsel failed to investigate the existence of mitigating evidence. He failed to present readily available evidence that Andrus’s mother was a drug addict, drug dealer, and prostitute who sold and used drugs around her children. She would disappear for days, sometimes weeks, at a time, on her drug binges. Andrus was often left with the responsibility to raise his siblings. His mother brought home abusive boyfriends who were in and out of Andrus’s life. At age 10 or 11, he was diagnosed with affective psychosis.

At age 16, Andrus confined in a Texas juvenile detention center for serving as lookout while his friends robbed a woman of her purse. He was put on high doses of psychotropic drugs and served long stints of solitary confinement. On multiple occasions, he self-harmed and threatened suicide. He was transferred to an adult facility and released at age 18. Not long after, he committed the murders of which he was convicted. In prison, Andrus attempted suicide.

None of the foregoing evidence was presented during the penalty phase of Andrus’s trial. In fact, trial counsel was unaware of the evidence because he did not investigate Andrus’s past and failed to interview witnesses who could have testified to those facts. The only witnesses that trial counsel did present actually bolstered the prosecution’s case that Andrus had a propensity for violence and was a threat to those around him. Andrus was sentenced to death.

After an unsuccessful direct appeal, Andrus filed a petition for habeas corpus in the trial court, claiming ineffective assistance of trial counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment right. After an eight-day hearing, at which the above evidence of Andrus’s past was introduced, the trial court concluded that trial counsel had been ineffective and that such ineffective representation prejudiced Andrus.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed. The court concluded that Andrus had failed to show, as he was required to do under Strickland, that counsel’s representation “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” or that there was a “reasonable probability that the result [of the penalty phase of the trial] would have been different” had counsel’s performance not been deficient. Andrus petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari.

In the Supreme Court, Andrus argued that the abbreviated analysis of Strickland by Texas courts in general and by the court in his case in particular resulted in the pro forma rejection of meritorious ineffective-assistance-of-counsel cases. He claimed that in cases such as his, where counsel’s trial performance was patently deficient, the “truncated, analytically unsound” application of the second prong of Strickland produces unjust results. The prejudice prong is so onerous, he claimed, that few courts find it satisfied, and he questioned how a criminal defendant could fail to obtain habeas relief when the adversarial system had so utterly failed.

Claiming that an abbreviated Strickland analysis that looks only at the evidence adduced at trial to determine prejudice is unjust and unconstitutional, Andrus argued that a court must compare the evidence from the trial with the evidence from the habeas corpus hearing to determine whether the defendant was prejudiced. The question is whether the new evidence adduced at the habeas corpus hearing would have affected the outcome of the trial, not whether the evidence at trial was sufficient to support the penalty imposed. Further, Andrus claimed that a reviewing court in a habeas corpus ineffective-assistance claim must assess how the deficit performance affected the fundamental fairness of the proceeding.

The Supreme Court did not bite on the opportunity to modify or overrule Strickland. Without addressing Andrus’s arguments on that score, the Court applied the Strickland test to his claim. It did, however, reject the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision dismissing the habeas corpus petition. Disagreeing with the Texas court, the Supreme Court held that the record clearly showed that counsel’s conduct fell below reasonably objective standards for representation.

Next, the Court stated that the Texas court “may have failed properly to engage with” the question of prejudice from that ineffective representation. The lower court “concluded without elaboration” that Andrus failed to meet the Strickland standard, but it should have considered “the totality of the mitigation evidence”—both that adduced at trial and that presented in the habeas hearing in the trial court. That evidence, the Supreme Court held, must be reweighed against the evidence in aggravation to determine whether a reasonable probability exists that Andrus would have received a different sentence. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ opinion was “unclear” as to whether it engaged in this analysis, and the Supreme Court remanded the case for further consideration of the prejudice issue.

While the Supreme Court did not modify or overrule the prejudice prong of Strickland, it did provide guidance on the evidence that must be considered in determining whether prejudice exists. Its rejection of the Texas court’s one-sentence dismissal of Andrus’s claim may signal that more is required of a court reviewing an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim. The decision must show that the court “reweighed” all of the newly provided mitigating evidence against the aggravating evidence in determining prejudice. In addition to breathing life back into Andrus’s habeas corpus claim, the Supreme Court’s holding may shift the prejudice analysis away from a curt dismissal and toward a meaningful weighing of the evidence.