Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 2 (2000)

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Cite as: 529 U. S. 362 (2000)


Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

163 F. 3d 860, reversed and remanded.

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court as to Parts I, III, and IV, concluding that Williams was denied his constitutionally guaranteed right to the effective assistance of counsel, as defined in Strickland, when his trial lawyers failed to investigate and to present substantial mitigating evidence to the sentencing jury. Pp. 390-398.

(a) The threshold question under AEDPA—whether Williams seeks to apply a rule of law that was clearly established at the time his state-court conviction became final—is easily answered because the merits of his claim are squarely governed by Strickland. To establish ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant must prove: (1) that counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, 466 U. S., at 688; and (2) that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense, which requires a showing that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different, id., at 694. Because the Strickland test qualifies as "clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court," this Court's precedent "dictated" that the Virginia Supreme Court apply that test in entertaining Williams' ineffective-assistance claim. See Teague v. Lane, 489 U. S. 288, 301. Pp. 390-391.

(b) Williams is entitled to relief because the Virginia Supreme Court's decision rejecting his ineffective-assistance claim both is "contrary to, [and] involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law." Strickland provides sufficient guidance for resolving virtually all ineffective-assistance claims, and the Virginia Supreme Court erred in holding that Lockhart modified or in some way supplanted Strickland. Although there are a few situations in which the overriding focus on fundamental fairness may affect the analysis, see Strickland, 466 U. S., at 692, cases such as Lockhart and Nix v. Whiteside, 475 U. S. 157, do not justify a departure from a straightforward application of Strickland when counsel's ineffectiveness deprives the defendant of a substantive or procedural right to which the law entitles him. Here, Williams had a constitutionally protected right to provide mitigating evidence that his trial counsel either failed to discover or failed to offer. Moreover, the Virginia trial judge correctly applied both components of the Strickland standard to Williams' claim. The record establishes that counsel failed to prepare for sentencing until a week beforehand, to uncover extensive records graphically describing Williams' nightmarish childhood, to introduce available evidence that Williams was "borderline mentally retarded" and did not advance beyond sixth grade, to seek prison records recording Williams' commendations for


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