This post summarizes an opinion issued by the United States Supreme Court on June 15, 2020.
Defense counsel’s performance was deficient in the punishment phase of a capital murder trial because counsel failed to conduct an adequate investigation into the mitigation case as well as into the State’s aggravation case
Andrus v. Texas, 590 U.S. ___, ___ S. Ct. ___ (June 15, 2020). In a per curiam decision, the Court determined that defense counsel’s performance in the punishment phase of a capital murder trial was deficient and remanded the case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for that court to address the prejudice prong of a Strickland ineffective assistance of counsel analysis. Noting that under prevailing professional norms defense counsel had an obligation to conduct a thorough investigation of the defendant’s background, the Court found that defense counsel fell short of that obligation in multiple ways:
First, counsel performed almost no mitigation investigation, overlooking vast tranches of mitigating evidence. Second, due to counsel’s failure to investigate compelling mitigating evidence, what little evidence counsel did present backfired by bolstering the State’s aggravation case. Third, counsel failed adequately to investigate the State’s aggravating evidence, thereby forgoing critical opportunities to rebut the case in aggravation.
Calling defense counsel’s nominal case in mitigation “an empty exercise,” the court explained that counsel was “barely acquainted” with the witnesses he called during the punishment phase and did not prepare them to testify, that he “did not look into or present the myriad tragic circumstances that marked [the defendant’s] life,” and that he ignored avenues of investigation of which he should have been aware. The Court went on to explain that because of his failure to investigate the mitigation case, defense counsel essentially introduced aggravating evidence as he elicited witness testimony that did not accurately reflect the defendant’s life experience and presented the defendant in a poor light. Finally, the court noted that defense counsel’s failure to investigate the State’s case in aggravation resulted in a deficient failure to rebut critical aggravation evidence. Finding defense counsel’s performance deficient as a matter of law, the Court said that there was a “significant question” as to whether the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had properly considered the prejudice prong of the Strickland analysis and remanded the case so that issue could be addressed.
Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, dissented, disagreeing with the majority’s view that the lower court had not properly considered the prejudice prong of the analysis.