Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 26 (2003)

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Cite as: 539 U. S. 510 (2003)

Opinion of the Court

ily, see Reply Brief for Petitioner 18-19, Wiggins experienced severe privation and abuse in the first six years of his life while in the custody of his alcoholic, absentee mother. He suffered physical torment, sexual molestation, and repeated rape during his subsequent years in foster care. The time Wiggins spent homeless, along with his diminished mental capacities, further augment his mitigation case. Petitioner thus has the kind of troubled history we have declared relevant to assessing a defendant's moral culpability. Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U. S. 302, 319 (1989) (" '[E]vidence about the defendant's background and character is relevant because of the belief, long held by this society, that defendants who commit criminal acts that are attributable to a disadvantaged background . . . may be less culpable than defendants who have no such excuse' "); see also Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104, 112 (1982) (noting that consideration of the offender's life history is a " 'part of the process of inflicting the penalty of death' "); Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U. S. 586, 604 (1978) (invalidating Ohio law that did not permit consideration of aspects of a defendant's background).

Given both the nature and the extent of the abuse petitioner suffered, we find there to be a reasonable probability that a competent attorney, aware of this history, would have introduced it at sentencing in an admissible form. While it may well have been strategically defensible upon a reasonably thorough investigation to focus on Wiggins' direct responsibility for the murder, the two sentencing strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Moreover, given the strength of the available evidence, a reasonable attorney might well have chosen to prioritize the mitigation case over the direct responsibility challenge, particularly given that Wiggins' history contained little of the double edge we have found to justify limited investigations in other cases. Cf. Burger v. Kemp, 483 U. S. 776 (1987); Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U. S. 168 (1986).


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