United States v. Cronic
Annotate this Case
466 U.S. 648 (1984)
U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984)
United States v. Cronic
Argued January 10, 1984
Decided May 14, 1984
466 U.S. 648
Respondent and two associates were indicted on mail fraud charges involving a "check kiting" scheme whereby checks were transferred between a bank in Florida and a bank in Oklahoma. When respondent's retained counsel withdrew shortly before the scheduled trial date, the District Court appointed a young lawyer with a real estate practice who had never participated in a jury trial to represent respondent, but allowed him only 25 days to prepare for trial, even though the Government had taken over four and one-half years to investigate the case and had reviewed thousands of documents during that investigation. Respondent was convicted, but the Court of Appeals reversed, because it inferred that respondent's right to the effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment had been violated. Finding it unnecessary to inquire into counsel's actual performance at trial, the court based its inference on the circumstances surrounding the representation of respondent, particularly (1) the time afforded for investigation and preparation, (2) the experience of counsel, (3) the gravity of the charge, (4) the complexity of possible defenses, and (5) the accessibility of witnesses to counsel.
Held: The Court of Appeals erred in utilizing an inferential approach in determining whether respondent's right to the effective assistance of counsel had been violated. Pp. 466 U. S. 653-667.
(a) The right to the effective assistance of counsel is the right of the accused to require the prosecution's case to survive the crucible of meaningful adversarial testing. When a true adversarial criminal trial has been conducted, the kind of testing envisioned by the Sixth Amendment has occurred. Pp. 466 U. S. 653-657.
(b) Here, while the Court of Appeals purported to apply a standard of reasonable competence, it did not indicate that there had been an actual breakdown of the adversarial process during a trial. Instead, it concluded that the circumstances surrounding the representation of respondent mandated an inference that counsel was unable to discharge his duties. Only when surrounding circumstances justify a presumption of ineffectiveness can a Sixth Amendment claim be sufficient without inquiry into counsel's actual performance at trial. Pp. 466 U. S. 657-662.
(c) The five criteria identified by the Court of Appeals as the circumstances surrounding respondent's representation warranting a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel, while relevant to an evaluation of a lawyer's
effectiveness in a particular case, neither separately nor in combination provide a basis for concluding that competent counsel was not able to provide this respondent with the guiding hand that the Constitution guarantees. Pp. 466 U. S. 663-666.
(d) This case is not one in which the surrounding circumstances make it unlikely that the defendant could have received the effective assistance of counsel. The criteria used by the Court of Appeals do not demonstrate that counsel failed to function in any meaningful sense as the Government's adversary. Respondent can make out a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel only by pointing to specific errors made by trial counsel. Pp. 466 U. S. 666-667.
675 F.2d 1126, reversed and remanded.
STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., concurred in the judgment.
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