Williams v. Taylor
Annotate this Case
529 U.S. 362 (2000)
OCTOBER TERM, 1999
WILLIAMS v. TAYLOR, WARDEN
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
No. 98-8384. Argued October 4, 1999-Decided April 18, 2000
A Virginia jury convicted petitioner Williams of robbery and capital murder, and, after a sentencing hearing, found a probability of future dangerousness and unanimously fixed his punishment at death. Concluding that such punishment was "proper" and "just," the trial judge imposed the death sentence. The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed. In state habeas corpus proceedings, the same trial judge found, on the evidence adduced after hearings, that Williams' conviction was valid, but that his counsel's failure to discover and present significant mitigating evidence violated his right to the effective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668. In rejecting the trial judge's recommendation that Williams be resentenced, the State Supreme Court held, inter alia, that the trial judge had failed to recognize that Strickland had been modified by Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506 U. S. 364, 369, and that Williams had not suffered sufficient prejudice to warrant relief. In habeas corpus proceedings under 28 U. S. C. § 2254, the federal trial judge agreed with the state trial judge that the death sentence was constitutionally infirm on ineffective-assistance grounds. The federal judge identified five categories of mitigating evidence that counsel had failed to introduce and rejected the argument that such failure had been a strategic decision to rely primarily on the fact that Williams had confessed voluntarily. As to prejudice, the judge determined, among other things, that there was a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different, see Strickland, 466 U. S., at 694. Applying an amended version of § 2254(d)(1) enacted in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), the judge concluded that the Virginia Supreme Court's decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." The Fourth Circuit reversed, construing § 2254(d)(1) to prohibit federal habeas relief unless the state court had interpreted or applied the relevant precedent in a manner that reasonable jurists would all agree is unreasonable. The court declared that it could not say that the Virginia Supreme Court's decision on prejudice was an unreasonable application of the Strickland or Lockhart standards established by the Supreme Court.
Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded. 163 F.3d 860, reversed and remanded.
JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court as to Parts I, III, and IV, concluding that Williams was denied his constitutionally guaranteed right to the effective assistance of counsel, as defined in Strickland, when his trial lawyers failed to investigate and to present substantial mitigating evidence to the sentencing jury. Pp. 390-398.
(a) The threshold question under AEDPA-whether Williams seeks to apply a rule of law that was clearly established at the time his statecourt conviction became final-is easily answered because the merits of his claim are squarely governed by Strickland. To establish ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant must prove: (1) that counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, 466 U. S., at 688; and (2) that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense, which requires a showing that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different, id., at 694. Because the Strickland test qualifies as "clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court," this Court's precedent "dictated" that the Virginia Supreme Court apply that test in entertaining Williams' ineffectiveassistance claim. See Teague v. Lane, 489 U. S. 288, 301. Pp. 390-391.
(b) Williams is entitled to relief because the Virginia Supreme Court's decision rejecting his ineffective-assistance claim both is "contrary to, [and] involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federallaw." Strickland provides sufficient guidance for resolving virtually all ineffective-assistance claims, and the Virginia Supreme Court erred in holding that Lockhart modified or in some way supplanted Strickland. Although there are a few situations in which the overriding focus on fundamental fairness may affect the analysis, see Strickland, 466 U. S., at 692, cases such as Lockhart and Nix v. Whiteside, 475 U. S. 157, do not justify a departure from a straightforward application of Strickland when counsel's ineffectiveness deprives the defendant of a substantive or procedural right to which the law entitles him. Here, Williams had a constitutionally protected right to provide mitigating evidence that his trial counsel either failed to discover or failed to offer. Moreover, the Virginia trial judge correctly applied both components of the Strickland standard to Williams' claim. The record establishes that counsel failed to prepare for sentencing until a week beforehand, to uncover extensive records graphically describing Williams' nightmarish childhood, to introduce available evidence that Williams was "borderline mentally retarded" and did not advance beyond sixth grade, to seek prison records recording Williams' commendations for
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