Wiggins v. Smith
Annotate this Case
539 U.S. 510 (2003)
OCTOBER TERM, 2002
WIGGINS v. SMITH, WARDEN, ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
No.02-311. Argued March 24, 2003-Decided June 26, 2003
In 1989, petitioner Wiggins was convicted of capital murder by a Maryland judge and subsequently elected to be sentenced by a jury. His public defenders, Schlaich and Nethercott, moved to bifurcate the sentencing, representing that they planned to prove that Wiggins did not kill the victim by his own hand and then, if necessary, to present a mitigation case. The court denied the motion. At sentencing, Nethercott told the jury in her opening statement that they would hear, among other things, about Wiggins' difficult life, but such evidence was never introduced. Before closing arguments and outside the presence of the jury, Schlaich made a proffer to the court to preserve the bifurcation issue for appeal, detailing the mitigation case counsel would have presented. Schlaich never mentioned Wiggins' life history or family background. The jury sentenced Wiggins to death, and the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed. Represented by new counsel, Wiggins sought postconviction relief, arguing that his trial counsel had rendered ineffective assistance by failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence of his dysfunctional background. He presented expert testimony by a forensic social worker about the severe physical and sexual abuse he had suffered at the hands of his mother and while under the care of a series of foster parents. Schlaich testified that he did not remember retaining a forensic social worker to prepare a social history before sentencing, even though state funds were available for that purpose, and explained that he and N ethercott had decided to focus on retrying the factual case and disputing Wiggins' direct responsibility for the murder. The trial court denied the petition, and the State Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that trial counsel had made a reasoned choice to proceed with what they considered their best defense. Subsequently, the Federal District Court granted Wiggins relief on his federal habeas petition, holding that the Maryland courts' rejection of his ineffective assistance claim involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. In reversing, the Fourth Circuit found trial counsel's strategic decision to focus on Wiggins' direct responsibility to be reasonable.
Held: The performance of Wiggins' attorneys at sentencing violated his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. Pp. 519-538.
(a) A federal writ can be granted only if a state court decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established" precedents of this Court. 28 U. S. C. § 2254(d)(1). This "unreasonable application" prong permits the writ to be granted when a state court identifies the correct governing legal principle but unreasonably applies it to the facts of a petitioner's case. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U. S. 362,413. For this standard to be satisfied, the state court decision must have been "objectively unreasonable," id., at 409, not just incorrect or erroneous. An ineffective assistance claim has two components: A petitioner must show that counsel's performance was deficient, and that the deficiency prejudiced the defense. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668, 687. Performance is deficient if it falls below an objective standard of reasonableness, which is defined in terms of prevailing professional norms. Id., at 688. Here, as in Strickland, counsel claim that their limited investigation into petitioner's background reflected a tactical judgment not to present mitigating evidence and to pursue an alternative strategy instead. In evaluating petitioner's claim, this Court's principal concern is not whether counsel should have presented a mitigation case, but whether the investigation supporting their decision not to introduce mitigating evidence of Wiggins' background was itselfreasonable. The Court thus conducts an objective review of their performance, measured for reasonableness under prevailing professional norms, including a context-dependent consideration of the challenged conduct as seen from counsel's perspective at the time of that conduct. Id., at 688, 689. Pp. 519-523.
(b) Counsel did not conduct a reasonable investigation. Their decision not to expand their investigation beyond a presentence investigation (PSI) report and Baltimore City Department of Social Services (DSS) records fell short of the professional standards prevailing in Maryland in 1989. Standard practice in Maryland capital cases at that time included the preparation of a social history report. Although there were funds to retain a forensic social worker, counsel chose not to commission a report. Their conduct similarly fell short of the American Bar Association's capital defense work standards. Moreover, in light of the facts counsel discovered in the DSS records concerning Wiggins' alcoholic mother and his problems in foster care, counsel's decision to cease investigating when they did was unreasonable. Any reasonably competent attorney would have realized that pursuing such leads was necessary to making an informed choice among possible defenses, particularly given the apparent absence of aggravating factors from Wiggins' background. Indeed, counsel discovered no evidence to suggest that a mitigation case would have been counterproductive or that further investigation would have been fruitless, thus distinguishing this case