Nix v. Whiteside
475 U.S. 157 (1986)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Nix v. Whiteside, 475 U.S. 157 (1986)

Nix v. Whiteside

No. 84-1321

Argued November 5, 1985

Decided February 26, 1986

475 U.S. 157

Syllabus

In preparing for his Iowa state court trial on a murder charge, respondent consistently told his attorney that, although he had not actually seen a gun in the victim's hand when he stabbed the victim, he was convinced that the victim had a gun. Respondent's companions who were present during the stabbing told counsel that they had not seen a gun, and no gun was found. Counsel advised respondent that the existence of a gun was not necessary to establish a claim of self-defense, and that only a reasonable belief that the victim had a gun nearby was necessary, even though no gun was actually present. However, during preparation for direct examination shortly before trial, respondent for the first time told counsel that he had seen "something metallic" in the victim's hand. When asked about this, respondent said: "If I don't say I saw a gun, I'm dead." On respondent's insisting that he would testify that he saw "something metallic," counsel told him that, if he testified falsely, it would be counsel's duty to advise the court that he felt respondent was committing perjury, and that counsel probably would be allowed to impeach that testimony and would seek to withdraw from representation if respondent insisted on committing perjury. Respondent ultimately testified as originally contemplated, admitting on cross-examination that he had not actually seen a gun in the victim's hand. After the jury found respondent guilty, respondent moved for a new trial, claiming that he had been deprived of a fair trial by counsel's admonitions not to state that he saw a gun or "something metallic." The court denied the motion after a hearing, and the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, holding that counsel's actions were not only permissible, but were required under Iowa law. Respondent then sought federal habeas corpus relief, alleging that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel by his attorney's refusal to allow him to testify as he proposed. The District Court denied relief, but the Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that an intent to commit perjury, communicated to counsel, does not alter a defendant's right to effective assistance of counsel, and that counsel's threatened violation of his client's confidences violated the "effective representation" standards set forth in Strickland v. Washington,466 U. S. 668.

Page 475 U. S. 158

Held: The Sixth Amendment right of a criminal defendant to assistance of counsel is not violated when an attorney refuses to cooperate with the defendant in presenting perjured testimony at his trial. Pp. 475 U. S. 164-176.

(a) Strickland v. Washington, supra, held that, to obtain relief by way of federal habeas corpus on a claim of a deprivation of effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment, the movant must establish both serious attorney error and prejudice. The Sixth Amendment inquiry is into whether the attorney's conduct was "reasonably effective." A court must be careful not to narrow the wide range of attorney conduct acceptable under the Sixth Amendment so restrictively as to constitutionalize particular standards of professional conduct, and thereby intrude into a state's proper authority to define and apply the standards of professional conduct applicable to those it admits to practice in its courts. Pp. 475 U. S. 164-166.

(b) Counsel's conduct here fell within the wide range of professional responses to threatened client perjury acceptable under the Sixth Amendment. Counsel's duty of loyalty to, and advocacy of, the defendant's cause is limited to legitimate, lawful conduct compatible with the very nature of a trial as a search for truth. Although counsel must take all reasonable lawful means to attain his client's objectives, counsel is precluded from taking steps or in any way assisting the client in presenting false evidence or otherwise violating the law. Moreover, accepted norms require that a lawyer disclose his client's perjury and frauds upon the court. Iowa's Code also expressly permits withdrawal from representation as an appropriate response of an attorney when the client threatens to commit perjury. Pp. 475 U. S. 166-171.

(c) The Court of Appeals' holding is not supported by the record, since counsel's action, at most, deprived respondent of his contemplated perjury. Whatever the scope of a constitutional right to testify, it is elementary that such a right does not extend to testifying falsely, and the right to counsel includes no right to have a lawyer who will cooperate with planned perjury. There was no breach of professional duty in counsel's admonition to respondent that he would disclose respondent's perjury to the court. Pp. 475 U. S. 171-175.

(d) As a matter of law, counsel's conduct here cannot establish the prejudice required for relief under the Strickland inquiry. The "conflict of interests" involved was one imposed on the attorney by the client's proposal to commit the crime of fabricating testimony. This is not the kind of conflict of interest that would render the representation constitutionally infirm. Pp. 475 U. S. 175-176.

744 F.2d 1323, reversed.

Page 475 U. S. 159

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 475 U. S. 176. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 475 U. S. 177. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 475 U. S. 190.

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