SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
OCTOBER TERM, 2003
on petition for writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit
No. 02-1597. Decided October 20, 2003
At respondent Gentry's California state trial on charges that he stabbed his girlfriend, his counsel's closing argument made several key points, but did not highlight some potentially exculpatory evidence. Gentry was convicted. His claim that the closing argument denied him his right to effective assistance of counsel was rejected on direct appeal. His subsequent petition for federal habeas relief was denied by the District Court, but the Ninth Circuit reversed.
Held: The Ninth Circuit erred in finding that Gentry was deprived of his right to effective assistance of counsel. That right is denied when a defense attorney's performance falls below an objective standard of reasonableness and thus prejudices the defense. If a state court has already rejected an ineffective-assistance claim, its application of governing federal law must be shown to be not only erroneous, but objectively unreasonable. The right to effective assistance of counsel extends to closing arguments, but deference to counsel's tactical decisions in closing is particularly important because of the broad range of legitimate defense strategy at that stage. The record supports the state court's conclusion that counsel's performance was not ineffective, and the potentially exculpatory evidence highlighted by the Ninth Circuit does not establish that the state court's decision was unreasonable. Focusing on a few key points may be more persuasive than a shotgun approach, and there is a strong presumption that counsel focuses on some issues to the exclusion of others for tactical reasons, see Strickland v. Washington,
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