Florida v. Nixon Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Substantial evidence indicated respondent Nixon’s guilt. His counsel settled on a strategy of admitting guilt so as to gain a better position at sentencing. Respondent was generally unresponsive and unhelpful.

Facts of the case

“A Florida court convicted Joe Elton Nixon of murder and sentenced him to death. During the trial Nixon’s lawyer told the jury Nixon was guilty. Nixon appealed and argued he received ineffective counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment. Nixon said he did not agree to the lawyer’s strategy. After several appeals the Florida Supreme Court granted Nixon a new trial. The court said Nixon’s lawyer’s comments were essentially a guilty plea and that because Nixon did not explicitly agree to the strategy, the lawyer was “”per se ineffective.”””

Question

Whether counsel’s failure to obtain the defendant’s express consent to a strategy of conceding guilt in a capital trial automatically renders counsel’s performance deficient.

Answer

No. The Supreme Court of the United States first determined that the proper standard was derived from Strickland v. Washington, which would have required Nixon to show that counsel’s concession strategy was unreasonable. The Supreme Court then turned to the realities facing counsel for defendants in capital cases, noting that, in certain situations, the defendant’s guilt may not be in doubt, and avoiding execution may be the best and only realistic result possible. When counsel informs the defendant of the strategy counsel believes to be in the defendant’s best interest and the defendant is unresponsive, counsel’s strategic choice is not impeded by any blanket rule demanding the defendant’s explicit consent.

Conclusion

The United States Supreme Court unanimously held that the concession of guilt without explicit consent of defendant was not automatically prejudicial ineffective assistance of counsel. Defendant neither consented nor objected to counsel’s proposed strategy and counsel acted reasonably in electing the most promising means of averting the death penalty. Further, the concession was not tantamount to a guilty plea since defendant retained his criminal trial and appeal rights, and counsel could not be deemed ineffective for attempting to impress the jury with his candor which could lend credence to counsel’s mitigation efforts during the penalty phase.

  • Case Brief: 2004
  • Petitioner: Florida
  • Respondent: Joe Elton Nixon
  • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Citation: 543 US 175 (2004)
Granted Mar 1, 2004
Argued: Nov 2, 2004
Decided: Dec 13, 2004