Ineffective Assistance of Counsel: Supreme Court to Decide Whether Prejudice is Required

Recently, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Weaver v. Massachusetts, No. 16-240, and answer the question of whether a defendant who receives inadequate representation from his lawyer must also prove that he was prejudiced by the ineffective assistance of counsel. This question has created a split in the lower courts, with four circuits and five state courts of last resort holding that a defendant must show that he was prejudiced by his counsel’s ineffectiveness in addition to proving deficient performance, while four other circuits and two state high courts have held that prejudice is presumed in such cases and thus the defendant does not have to prove anything additional.

Kentel Myrone Weaver, the petitioner in this case, who was sixteen-years-old at the time of the offense, was indicted and tried for the murder of fifteen-year-old Germaine Rucker. Weaver had admitted to shooting Rucker after the police questioned him. During jury selection for Weaver’s trial, the court officer closed the court to Weaver’s family and other members of the public due to overcrowding. Weaver was subsequently convicted of murder in the first degree. Weaver filed a motion for a new trial, claiming that he was denied effective assistance of counsel because his counsel failed to object to the closure of the courtroom in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. The trial court denied Weaver’s motion for a new trial, and on direct appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts affirmed Weaver’s conviction on the rationale that Weaver failed to show he suffered prejudice from his counsel’s failure to object to the court closure.

This is an open question with a split amongst the courts because a Sixth Amendment violation typically constitutes a “structural error,” which is automatically presumed to be prejudicial.  But here, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that when the structural error resulted from the alleged ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant must also show that he suffered prejudice.  There are two broad categories of constitutional errors in criminal trials: (1) trial errors (where prejudice must additionally be demonstrated); and (2) structural errors (where prejudice is automatically assumed). Structural errors are those errors that “affect the framework within which the trial proceeds,” and are “not simply an error in the trial process itself.”  Some examples of structural rights are: the right to trial by jury, the right to a loyal attorney, the right to an impartial judge, and the right to a public trial. Trial errors generally encompass all ineffective assistance of counsel claims. For trial errors, a defendant is required to not only show an error occurred, but must additionally show prejudice, meaning there was a “reasonable probability” that the outcome changed because of the error.  There are a few instances in which prejudice is presumed for trial errors, such as for attorney conflicts of interest, denial of counsel at a critical stage of trial, or failure of counsel to subject the prosecution’s case to meaningful adversarial testing.

The two-pronged test for trial errors (error + prejudice) represents a high bar for criminal defendants appealing their convictions, meaning the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision in Weaver could have a significant impact on defendants’ ability to win new trials.  A favorable decision for the Petitioner would mean that this prejudice requirement is presumptively satisfied when ineffective assistance results in a structural error.  Oral argument on this case is scheduled for Wednesday, April 19, 2017.

Categories: Federal Law

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