Lockhart v. Fretwell,
506 U.S. 364 (1993)

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No. 91-1393. Argued November 3, 1992-Decided January 25,1993

An Arkansas jury convicted respondent Fretwell of capital felony murder and sentenced him to death, finding, inter alia, the aggravating factor that the murder, which occurred during a robbery, was committed for pecuniary gain. On direct appeal, Fretwell argued that his sentence was unconstitutional under the then-existing Eighth Circuit precedent of Collins v. Lockhart, 754 F.2d 258, because it was based on an aggravating factor that duplicated an element of the underlying felony-murder in the course of a robbery. However, the State Supreme Court declined to consider whether to follow Collins because Fretwell had not objected to the aggravator's use during the sentencing phase, and that court later rejected a state habeas corpus challenge in which he raised an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim. The District Court conditionally vacated his sentence on federal habeas, holding that counsel's failure to raise the Collins objection amounted to prejudice under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668, in which deficient performance and prejudice were identified as the two components of any ineffectiveassistance claim. Although the Court of Appeals had overruled Collins, it affirmed, reasoning that the trial court would have sustained a Collins objection had it been made at Fretwell's trial and the jury would not have sentenced him to death.

Held: Counsel's failure to make the Collins objection during the sentencing proceeding did not constitute prejudice within the meaning of Strickland v. Washington, supra. To show prejudice under Strickland, a defendant must demonstrate that counsel's errors are so serious as to deprive him of a trial whose result is unfair or unreliable, id., at 687, not merely that the outcome would have been different. Unfairness or unreliability does not result unless counsel's ineffectiveness deprives the defendant of a substantive or procedural right to which the law entitles him. The sentencing proceeding's result in the present case was neither unfair nor unreliable, because the Court of Appeals, which had decided Collins in 1985, overruled it in Perry v. Lockhart, 871 F.2d 1384, four years later. Thus, respondent suffered no prejudice from his counsel's deficient performance. Contrary to Fretwell's argument, prejudice is not determined under the laws existing at the


time of trial. Although contemporary assessment of counsel's conduct is used when determining the deficient performance component of the Strickland test, the prejudice component, with its focus on fairness and reliability, does not implicate the same concerns that motivated the former component's adoption: that a more rigid requirement could dampen the ardor and impair the independence of defense counsel, discourage the acceptance of assigned cases, and undermine the trust between attorney and client. The instant holding is not inconsistent with the retroactivity rule announced in Teague v. Lane, 489 U. S. 288, 310. The circumstances that gave rise to that rule do not apply to claims raised by a federal habeas petitioner, who has no interest in the finality of the state-court judgment under which he was incarcerated and, unlike the States, ordinarily has no claim of reliance on past judicial precedent as a basis for his actions. Pp. 368-373.

946 F.2d 571, reversed.

REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., post, p. 373, and THOMAS, J., post, p. 375, filed concurring opinions. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 376.

Winston Bryant, Attorney General of Arkansas, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Clint Miller, Senior Assistant Attorney General, and J. Brent Standridge, Assistant Attorney General.

Amy L. Wax argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With her on the brief were Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorney General Mueller, Deputy Solicitor General Bryson, and Richard A. Friedman.

Ricky R. Medlock, by appointment of the Court, 504 U. S. 984, argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent. *

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of California et al. by Daniel E. Lungren, Attorney General of California, George Williamson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Ward A. Campbell, Deputy Attorney General, and Mark L. Krotoski, Special Assistant Attorney General, James H. Evans, Attorney General of Alabama, Charles E. Cole, Attorney General of Alaska, Grant Woods, Attorney General of Arizona, Gale A. Norton, Attorney General of Colorado, Richard N. Palmer, Chief

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