RESPONDENT: Joe Elton Nixon
LOCATION: Meramec River
DOCKET NO.: 03-931
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Florida Supreme Court
CITATION: 543 US 175 (2004)
GRANTED: Mar 01, 2004
ARGUED: Nov 02, 2004
DECIDED: Dec 13, 2004
Charles L. Hobson - for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation as amicus curiae urging reversal
Deputy Attorney General - for petitioner
Edward H. Tillinghast III - argued the cause for Respondents
George S. Lemieux - argued the cause for Petitioner
Irving L. Gornstein - argued the cause for Petitioner, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae
Kent S. Scheidegger - for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation as amicus curiae urging reversal
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."
1.) Is a defense lawyer's use of a strategy that concedes the defendant's guilt ineffective assistance of counsel if the strategy was pursued without the explicit approval of the defendant? 2.) Should counsel be held to a standard that considers whether counsel's statements were deficient and prejudicial to the defendant, or should counsel be considered ineffective per se?
Media for Florida v. NixonAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 02, 2004 in Florida v. Nixon
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - December 13, 2004 in Florida v. Nixon
We have several opinions to announce today.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
This case concerns a strategic decision defends counsel made in a capital murder trial.
First the opinion of the Court in case No. 03-931, Florida versus Nixon will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
Counsel's strategy was to concede at the guilt based of the trial that the defendant committed the crime by projecting candor.
The attorney believed he would be better positioned at the penalty phase to urge the jury to spare his client's life.
The Florida Supreme Court held that a concession of guilt at trial made without the defendant's expressed consent automatically ranks as prejudicial ineffective assistance of counsel necessitating a new trial.
We reverse the Florida Supreme Court's judgment.
Respondent Joe Elton Nixon, the capital murder defendant, confessed to kidnapping a woman tying her to a tree, setting her on fire while still alive and leaving her to burn to death.
The state armed with powerful evidence of Nixon’s guilt sought the death penalty.
Given the strength of the state's case Nixon’s appointed counsel thought it unwise to attempt a defendant did not commit the crime defense.
Instead counsel aimed to persuade the jury at the penalty phase of the trial that Nixon committed the murder while mentally imbalanced.
To this end the counsel would offer evidence that Nixon had a long history of emotional instability or low IQ and possible brain damage.
Counsel several times explained the strategy to Nixon, each time Nixon said nothing in reply.
Counsel proceeded with his plan strategy but despite the evidence of Nixon’s mental disabilities the jury recommended and the Trial Court imposed the death penalty.
Notably however the trial judge commended counsel performance describing the tactics Nixon’s attorney employed as an excellent analysis of the reality of his case.
The Florida Supreme Court viewed the case differently.
That court regarded counsel's concession of Nixon’s guilt as the functional equivalent of the guilty plea.
Consent to a guilty plea can not be inferred from silence the Florida Supreme Court correctly observed, similarly a concession of guilt at trial that court held required the defendants express consent.
We disagree with the latter assessment.
Counsel must consult with his client but when the client is unresponsive counsel must be free to follow his own professional judgment.
The Florida Court incorrectly equated a guilty plea to concession a guilt at trial.
Unlike a defendant guilty who has pleaded guilty Nixon retained the constitutional rights that in here in the criminal preceding one such right counsel could object to items of evidence attended by the prosecution.
The state was oblige to present during the guilt phase proof convincing the jury beyond the reasonable doubt on every element of the charged defense that aggressive evidence would as be distanced from the penalty phase enabling the defense to concentrate that portion of the trial on mitigating factors.
The Florida Courts erroneous equations of counsel's concessions strategy to a guilty plea led it to apply the wrong standard in evaluating counsel's effectiveness.
That court first presumed deficient performance and then applied a presumption of prejudice derived from our decision in United States v. Cronic.
But in Cronic we reserved the presumption of prejudice for situations in which counsel has entirely fail to function as the client's advocate.
On the record considered by the Florida Supreme Court counsel's concession of guilt scarcely ranks as a failure of that order.
The Florida Court should have employed the generally applicable standard this Court stated in Strickland v. Washington; it should have asked did counsel's representation fall outside the balance of reasonable professional conduct.
Commentators have observed that when the evidence is overwhelming and the crime heinous, counsel who attempts an implausible defense may jeopardize his client's chances for a life sentence in lieu of the death penalty.
Reknowned advocate Clarence Darrow successfully employed a similar strategy as counsel for the youthful cold-blooded killers Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold.