Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510 (2003)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit

No. 02-311. Argued March 24, 2003—Decided June 26, 2003

In 1989, petitioner Wiggins was convicted of capital murder by a Maryland judge and subsequently elected to be sentenced by a jury. His public defenders, Schlaich and Nethercott, moved to bifurcate the sentencing, representing that they planned to prove that Wiggins did not kill the victim by his own hand and then, if necessary, to present a mitigation case. The court denied the motion. At sentencing, Nethercott told the jury in her opening statement that they would hear, among other things, about Wiggins' difficult life, but such evidence was never introduced. Before closing arguments and outside the presence of the jury, Schlaich made a proffer to the court to preserve the bifurcation issue for appeal, detailing the mitigation case counsel would have presented. Schlaich never mentioned Wiggins' life history or family background. The jury sentenced Wiggins to death, and the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed. Represented by new counsel, Wiggins sought postconviction relief, arguing that his trial counsel had rendered ineffective assistance by failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence of his dysfunctional background. He presented expert testimony by a forensic social worker about the severe physical and sexual abuse he had suffered at the hands of his mother and while under the care of a series of foster parents. Schlaich testified that he did not remember retaining a forensic social worker to prepare a social history before sentencing, even though state funds were available for that purpose, and explained that he and Nethercott had decided to focus on retrying the factual case and disputing Wiggins' direct responsibility for the murder. The trial court denied the petition, and the State Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that trial counsel had made a reasoned choice to proceed with what they considered their best defense. Subsequently, the Federal District Court granted Wiggins relief on his federal habeas petition, holding that the Maryland courts' rejection of his ineffective assistance claim involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. In reversing, the Fourth Circuit found trial counsel's strategic decision to focus on Wiggins' direct responsibility to be reasonable.

Held: The performance of Wiggins' attorneys at sentencing violated his

Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. Pp. 519-538.

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