Wiggins v. Smith

LOCATION:United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 02-311
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 539 US 510 (2003)
ARGUED: Mar 24, 2003
DECIDED: Jun 26, 2003

Dan Himmelfarb – Department of Justice, argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the respondents
Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. – On behalf of the petitioner
Gary E. Bair – Baltimore, Maryland, argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

Kevin Wiggins was convicted and sentenced to death for a 1988 murder. He appealed, claiming that his attorney’s decision not to tell jurors about Wiggins’ troubled childhood amounted to ineffective counsel because it resulted in a harsher sentence. Prosecutors countered that the attorney’s decision had been carefully considered, and that a different decision would not necessarily have resulted in a different outcome. Therefore, they said, it was not ineffective counsel. A Maryland district court sided with Wiggins; the Maryland Supreme Court reversed, siding with the state. On appeal to federal court, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling for Maryland.


Does a criminal defendant’s attorneys’ failure to investigate his background and present mitigating evidence of his unfortunate life history at his capital sentencing proceedings constitute ineffective assistance of counsel?

Media for Wiggins v. Smith

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 24, 2003 in Wiggins v. Smith

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 26, 2003 in Wiggins v. Smith

Sandra Day O’Connor:

The second case I have to announce is No. 02-311, Wiggins versus Smith which comes on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

In 1989, the petitioner, Kevin Wiggins was convicted of capital murder by a Maryland judge and was sentenced to death by a jury.

The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed.

Represented by new counsel, petitioner sought state post conviction relief arguing that trial counsel had rendered ineffective assistance by failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence of his troubled childhood.

To support his claim that petitioner presented testimony by a social worker who discussed petitioner’s long history of privation and physical as well as sexual abuse.

The State Court denied the petitioner relief.

The Maryland Court of Appeals emphasized that counsel did investigate petitioner’s childhood concluding that counsel had made a legitimate tactical decision to challenge petitioner’s direct responsibility for the murder rather than to present the mitigation case.

Petitioner then sought habeas relief in Federal District Court.

The Federal Court granted the writ but the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that counsel had made a reasonable strategic decision.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we reverse the decision of the Fourth Circuit.

To prevail on an ineffective assistance claim, the petitioner must show that counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that the deficiency prejudice his defense.

Our principal concern in evaluating petitioner’s claim is not whether a counsel should have presented a mitigation case, but whether the investigation that counsel directed supporting that decision, not to introduce mitigating evidence was itself reasonable.

In our review of petitioner’s claim as circumscribed by the requirements of 28 United States Code Section 2254, which authorizes Federal Courts to grant habeas relief only if a State Court decision was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.

Counsels investigation of petitioner’s life history fell below the performance standard set by Strickland versus Washington.

Counsel’s investigation consisted of two sources that contained only a fraction of the mitigating evidence revealed during state post conviction proceeding, a pre-sentence investigation report and a state social services record.

Counsel’s decision to end their investigation with these sources was neither consistent with the professional standards that prevailed in 1989, nor reasonable in light of the evidence contained in the records.

Evidence that would have led a reasonably competent attorney to investigate further.

In assuming that counsel’s investigation met Strickland standards and in deferring that counsel’s strategic decision despite the unreasonable underlying investigation, the Maryland Court of Appeals unreasonably applied Strickland.

Section 2254(d) therefore poses no bar to the relief.

Given the nature in the extent of the available mitigating evidence, we also find that counsel’s deficient performance, prejudiced petitioner’s defense.

There is a reasonable probability that a competent attorney aware of this evidence would have introduced it at sentencing in an admissible form.

Moreover, had the jury been able to place petitioner’s bleak history on the mitigating side of the scale, there is a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have struck a different balance.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Thomas has joined.