Williams v. Taylor
529 U.S. 362 (2000)

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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

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

A cause of action for ineffective assistance of counsel arises when defense counsel fails to introduce mitigating evidence during the penalty phase of a capital trial. Moreover, Congress did not restrict the power of federal courts to provide habeas corpus relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.


Terry Williams argued that he had been provided with ineffective assistance of counsel during the penalty phase of his capital trial because his attorney failed to produce mitigating evidence. He raised this argument at a post-conviction proceeding after he already had been sentenced to death. He succeeded in the state trial court, which reversed the conviction under the standard imposed by Strickland v. Washington (1984). The state Supreme Court reversed this decision, and Williams sought a writ of habeas corpus from a federal court, which agreed that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel. On appeal, the federal Circuit Court disagreed and found that habeas relief could not be granted under Section 2254(d)(1) because the state court had not interpreted the law or precedents in a way that reasonable jurors would unanimously agree to be unreasonable.



  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer
  • Antonin Scalia

The jury might have been swayed by evidence regarding the dire conditions of the defendant's childhood, including the abuse that he suffered, as well as the fact that he was borderline mentally retarded. Instead, the lawyer merely provided the information that the defendant had voluntarily surrendered to law enforcement, expressed remorse, and cooperated with the investigation. That information might not have outweighed the finding of future dangerousness, combined with prison records and testimony by the guards. While the evidence that was not offered would not have directly rebutted the case for applying the death penalty, it still might have led to a different outcome. Under the Strickland standard, the assistance provided by the defense counsel was not only incompetent but also prejudicial because there was a reasonable probability that the sentence would have been different if the evidence had been provided, as a competent lawyer would have done.

Federal judges have the power to interpret and define the law under Article III of the Constitution when they are considering a federal question. The AEDPA does not affect their authority in this way and instead addresses only the way in which a federal habeas court resolves constitutional questions. They are required to use utmost care in considering the judgments of state courts, but they do not need to defer to the opinion of any reasonable state court judge on how to interpret federal law. This could lead to inconsistencies in results nationwide.


  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

The distinctive nature of a habeas corpus proceeding does not undermine the power of federal courts to interpret the law.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Clarence Thomas

The standard used by the Virginia Supreme Court was neither an unreasonable interpretation of federal law nor a departure from clearly established precedent. It would have been reasonable for the state court to find that the jury would not have reached a different decision if it had received information about the defendant's low IQ and childhood experiences of abuse.

Case Commentary

Writs of habeas should not be issued unless the state court acted unreasonably in its application or interpretation of clearly established federal law.

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