Strickland v. Washington,
466 U.S. 668 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)

Strickland v. Washington

No. 82-1554

Argued January 10, 1984

Decided May 14, 1984

466 U.S. 668


Respondent pleaded guilty in a Florida trial court to an indictment that included three capital murder charges. In the plea colloquy, respondent told the trial judge that, although he had committed a string of burglaries, he had no significant prior criminal record and that, at the time of his criminal spree, he was under extreme stress caused by his inability to support his family. The trial judge told respondent that he had "a great deal of respect for people who are willing to step forward and admit their responsibility." In preparing for the sentencing hearing, defense counsel spoke with respondent about his background, but did not seek out character witnesses or request a psychiatric examination. Counsel's decision not to present evidence concerning respondent's character and emotional state reflected his judgment that it was advisable to rely on the plea colloquy for evidence as to such matters, thus preventing the State from cross-examining respondent and from presenting psychiatric evidence of its own. Counsel did not request a presentence report, because it would have included respondent's criminal history and thereby would have undermined the claim of no significant prior criminal record. Finding numerous aggravating circumstances and no mitigating circumstance, the trial judge sentenced respondent to death on each of the murder counts. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed, and respondent then sought collateral relief in state court on the ground, inter alia, that counsel had rendered ineffective assistance at the sentencing proceeding in several respects, including his failure to request a psychiatric report, to investigate and present character witnesses, and to seek a presentence report. The trial court denied relief, and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed. Respondent then filed a habeas corpus petition in Federal District Court advancing numerous grounds for relief, including the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. After an evidentiary hearing, the District Court denied relief, concluding that, although counsel made errors in judgment in failing to investigate mitigating evidence further than he did, no prejudice to respondent's sentence resulted from any such error in judgment. The Court of Appeals ultimately reversed, stating that the Sixth Amendment accorded criminal defendants a right

Page 466 U. S. 669

to counsel rendering "reasonably effective assistance given the totality of the circumstances." After outlining standards for judging whether a defense counsel fulfilled the duty to investigate nonstatutory mitigating circumstances and whether counsel's errors were sufficiently prejudicial to justify reversal, the Court of Appeals remanded the case for application of the standards.


1. The Sixth Amendment right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance of counsel, and the benchmark for judging any claim of ineffectiveness must be whether counsel's conduct so undermined the proper functioning of the adversarial process that the trial cannot be relied on as having produced a just result. The same principle applies to a capital sentencing proceeding -- such as the one provided by Florida law -- that is sufficiently like a trial in its adversarial format and in the existence of standards for decision that counsel's role in the proceeding is comparable to counsel's role at trial. Pp. 466 U. S. 684-687.

2. A convicted defendant's claim that counsel's assistance was so defective as to require reversal of a conviction or setting aside of a death sentence requires that the defendant show, first, that counsel's performance was deficient and, second, that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense so as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial. Pp. 466 U. S. 687-696.

(a) The proper standard for judging attorney performance is that of reasonably effective assistance, considering all the circumstances. When a convicted defendant complains of the ineffectiveness of counsel's assistance, the defendant must show that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. Judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential, and a fair assessment of attorney performance requires that every effort be made to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time. A court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance. These standards require no special amplification in order to define counsel's duty to investigate, the duty at issue in this case. Pp. 466 U. S. 687-691.

(b) With regard to the required showing of prejudice, the proper standard requires the defendant to show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome. A court hearing an ineffectiveness claim must consider the totality of the evidence before the judge or jury. Pp. 466 U. S. 691-696.

Page 466 U. S. 670

3. A number of practical considerations are important for the application of the standards set forth above. The standards do not establish mechanical rules; the ultimate focus of inquiry must be on the fundamental fairness of the proceeding whose result is being challenged. A court need not first determine whether counsel's performance was deficient before examining the prejudice suffered by the defendant as a result of the alleged deficiencies. If it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice, that course should be followed. The principles governing ineffectiveness claims apply in federal collateral proceedings as they do on direct appeal or in motions for a new trial. And in a federal habeas challenge to a state criminal judgment, a state court conclusion that counsel rendered effective assistance is not a finding of fact binding on the federal court to the extent stated by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), but is a mixed question of law and fact. Pp. 466 U. S. 696-698.

4. The facts of this case make it clear that counsel's conduct at and before respondent's sentencing proceeding cannot be found unreasonable under the above standards. They also make it clear that, even assuming counsel's conduct was unreasonable, respondent suffered insufficient prejudice to warrant setting aside his death sentence. Pp. 466 U. S. 698-700.

693 F.2d 1243, reversed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 466 U. S. 701. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 466 U. S. 706.

Page 466 U. S. 671

Primary Holding

The appropriate standard for ineffective assistance of counsel requires both that the defense attorney was objectively deficient and that there was a reasonable probability that a competent attorney would have led to a different outcome.


Charged with capital murder in Florida, David Washington pleaded guilty and told the judge that he was under extreme stress at the time because of his inability to support his family. The judge sounded sympathetic, but Washington's defense counsel did not collect character evidence or request a psychiatric examination before the sentencing hearing. He made this decision so that the prosecution could not cross-examine Washington and use its own psychiatric report. He also did not seek a presentence report because he wanted to reduce the possibility that Washington's criminal record could be introduced, since this was related to an aggravating factor that would make the death penalty more likely.

After the sentencing hearing, the trial judge found that the death penalty was appropriate because of the lack of mitigating factors and presence of several aggravating factors. Once the sentence was affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court, Washington sought to argue that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel based on the decisions by his lawyer outlined above. He was denied at the trial level and by the state Supreme Court, so he then sought habeas corpus relief in federal court. However, the district court found that the lawyer's decisions, which they agreed were mistaken, did not materially affect the outcome in the case. In other words, there was no reason to think that Washington would not have received the death penalty if the lawyer had taken more steps in collecting evidence.

Procedural History

US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit - 693 F.2d 1243 (11th Cir. 1982)

Reversed and remanded. The Sixth Amendment provides defendants with a right to reasonably effective assistance of counsel under the totality of the circumstances. The case should be reconsidered according to standards for judging the lawyer's behavior outlined herein.



  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • John Paul Stevens

The majority found that the purpose of the right to effective assistance of counsel is tied to the right to a fair trial but does not extend beyond it. Counsel cannot be ineffective unless the mistakes were so objectively serious that they violated the defendant's right to a fair trial by causing a breakdown in the adversarial process. In measuring whether a lawyer's action met the standard of objective deficiency, the majority noted the ethical duties within the legal profession, such as zealous advocacy without conflicts of interest. However, it also observed that, while counsel must comply with all of those rules, they are not the limit of what can be expected, and this will vary according to the situation. Lawyers at least need to engage in a reasonable investigation of the case so that they have an understanding on which to base their strategies. An investigation sometimes can involve merely talking to a client, or it may require more substantial efforts.

On the other hand, the range of strategies available to lawyers is broad, and many justifiable options may be available at any given time. This means that courts should refrain from using hindsight to evaluate whether a decision was objectively deficient if it might have potentially made sense at the time. Even if a decision is objectively deficient, moreover, prejudice cannot be presumed in most situations unless there is a conflict of interest. The defendant must show a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different if not for the deficiency. In the context of a conviction, this means that the deficient representation prevented the jury from having a reasonable doubt. In the context of the sentencing phase of a capital trial, it means that the deficient representation prevented the judge or jury from properly balancing aggravating and mitigating factors. As the court acknowledged, this evaluation depends in large part on the overall strength of the prosecution's case, since a conviction or death penalty that seems implausible is less likely to have happened without deficient counsel.

In this particular situation, the majority felt that Washington's lawyer made a rational choice based on his conversations with Washington and the judge to avoid using psychiatric evidence or the presentence report and to avoid putting Washington in a position where he could be cross-examined. O'Connor found no evidence suggesting that Washington would have been sentenced to life in prison if the absent materials had been introduced.


  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)

Brennan agreed with the majority's standard for evaluating ineffective assistance of counsel, since he did not envision it restricting defendants from presenting mitigating evidence. He opposed the death penalty in all forms and situations, however, believing that it violates the Eighth Amendment. Thus, Brennan did not agree with the portion of the majority's opinon that affirmed Washington's sentence.


  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)

Marshall found that the standard articulated by the majority was overly nebulous and subject to creating unpredictable outcomes. He pointed out that views of what is objectively deficient can vary according to the type of lawyer and the proceeding. Rather than tying the evaluation so tightly to the outcome, Marshall would have examined the impact of the deficiencies on procedural aspects and other phases earlier in the trial, since they can have a domino effect on the outcome. He did not feel that lawyers should be granted such broad discretion in their decision-making.

In an intriguing observation on the uniqueness of death penalty trials, Marshall argued that defendants should be held to a lower standard in claims based on ineffective assistance of counsel in this context than in an ordinary trial. He found that certainty and the avoidance of any doubt is critical when imposing capital punishment, since it cannot be undone. This means that asking a defendant to show a reasonable probability that a death sentence would not have been imposed is unnecessarily stringent.

Case Commentary

It is extremely difficult for a defendant to prove that deficient counsel was outcome-determinative, and in a sense the standard reverses the burden of proof in criminal cases while retaining a similarly high standard of proof. Even showing that counsel was objectively deficient is challenging, since claims have failed when lawyers have taken naps during trial, arrived in the courtroom drunk or drugged, or failed to make more than minimal contact with their clients, among other examples. The very low standard of what constitutes acceptable representation may derive in part from the woefully overstretched, underfunded public defender system.

Unlike some Supreme Court decisions, this case had a very real impact on an individual's life. Washington was executed two months later.

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