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Wiggins v. Smith

United States Supreme Court
539 U.S. 510, 123 S.Ct. 2527, 156 L.Ed.2d 471 (2003)


Wiggins (defendant) was indicted for the murder of an elderly woman in 1988. The state indicated that it would seek the death penalty against him. Two public defenders were appointed to serve as counsel for Wiggins. Choosing to be tried before a judge, Wiggins was found guilty of first-degree murder, robbery and two counts of theft after a four-day trial. During the penalty phase, one of Wiggins’s attorneys, during her opening statement, mentioned to the jury that it would, among other things, hear evidence that Wiggins had a “difficult life.” During the course of the trial, however, defense counsel did not introduce anything about Wiggins’s life history. The jury returned a death sentence. Wiggins, having retained different counsel, sought post-conviction relief and argued that his attorneys were constitutionally ineffective because they did not introduce mitigating factors that would have shown his highly dysfunctional background. He presented the testimony of one social worker who described terrible abuse, both sexual and physical, suffered at the hands of his mother, foster parents, and several others. One of Wiggins’s original attorneys mentioned that he did not remember hiring a forensic social worker to help with Wiggins’s troubled background, even though the state provided funds for such a purpose. He said that he and the other attorney wanted to adopt a different trial strategy and try to dispute Wiggins’s direct responsibility for the murder. The state courts agreed with the attorneys and did not find ineffective assistance of counsel. On habeas review the district court granted the writ, saying that for a strategic decision to be reasonable, it must be “based upon information the attorney has made after conducting a reasonable investigation.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, however, agreed with the state court. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (O’Connor, J.)

Dissent (Scalia, J.)

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