Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 3 (2003)

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512

WIGGINS v. SMITH

Syllabus

from precedents in which this Court has found limited investigations into mitigating evidence to be reasonable. The record of the sentencing proceedings underscores the unreasonableness of counsel's conduct by suggesting that their failure to investigate thoroughly stemmed from inattention, not strategic judgment. Until the trial court denied their bifurcation motion, they had had every reason to develop the most powerful mitigation case possible. During the sentencing process itself, counsel did not focus exclusively on Wiggins' direct responsibility for the murder; rather they put on a halfhearted mitigation case instead. The Maryland Court of Appeals' assumption that counsel's investigation was adequate reflected an unreasonable application of Strickland. In deferring to counsel's decision not to present every conceivable mitigation defense despite the fact that counsel based their alleged choice on an inadequate investigation, the Maryland Court of Appeals further unreasonably applied Strickland. And the court's conclusion that the social services records revealed incidences of sexual abuse, when they in fact did not, reflects "an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding," 28 U. S. C. 2254(d)(2). Contrary to the State's and the United States' contention, the record as a whole does not support the conclusion that counsel conducted a more thorough investigation than the one this Court describes. Ultimately, this Court's conclusion that counsel's investigation was inadequate does not mean that Strickland requires counsel to investigate every conceivable line of mitigating evidence no matter how unlikely the effort would be to assist the defendant at sentencing. Nor does Strickland require counsel to present such evidence at sentencing in every case. Rather, the conclusion is based on the much more limited principle that "strategic choices made after less than complete investigation are reasonable" only to the extent that "reasonable professional judgments support the limitations on investigation." Strickland, supra, at 690-691. Pp. 523-534.

(c) Counsel's failures prejudiced Wiggins' defense. To establish prejudice, a defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the proceeding's result would have been different. Strickland, supra, at 694. This Court assesses prejudice by reweighing the aggravating evidence against the totality of the mitigating evidence adduced both at trial and in the habeas proceedings. Williams v. Taylor, supra, at 397-398. The mitigating evidence counsel failed to discover and present here is powerful. Wiggins experienced severe privation and abuse while in the custody of his alcoholic, absentee mother and physical torment, sexual molestation, and repeated rape while in foster care. His time spent homeless and his diminished mental capacities further augment his mitigation case. He

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