By Lisa Soronen
In Andrus v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court held 6-3 in an unauthored opinion that defense counsel was unconstitutionally ineffective in representing Terrance Andrus in a capital murder case because counsel failed to present mitigating evidence during the sentencing hearing.
Effective representation under the Sixth Amendment requires counsel “to make reasonable investigations or make a reasonable decision that makes particular investigations unnecessary.”
The court reasoned that counsel in this case did not meet this standard because he failed to investigate Andrus’s for mitigating evidence, did not present sufficient mitigating evidence at sentencing, and did not sufficiently oppose the state’s aggravating evidence.
The court began by assessing “whether the investigation supporting counsel’s decision not to introduce mitigating evidence was itself reasonable.”
The court concluded counsel had “performed virtually no investigation, either of the few witnesses he called in the case . . . or of the many circumstances in Andrus’ life.” Had counsel done so he would have discovered Andrus had been severely neglected, experienced “very pronounced trauma,” and suffered from serious mental health issues.
Next, the court noted that the “so-called mitigating evidence [counsel] offered unwittingly aided the state’s case in aggravation.” For example, counsel called Andrus’ mother who “sketched a portrait of a tranquil upbringing, during which Andrus got himself into trouble despite his family’s best efforts.” While Andrus told counsel his mother was lying, “counsel made no real attempt to probe the accuracy of her testimony.”
Ineffective assistance of counsel would require re-sentencing in this case only if there is prejudice, meaning a “reasonable probability that, but for his counsel’s ineffectiveness, the jury would have made a different judgment about whether Andrus deserved the death penalty as opposed to a lesser sentence.”
According to the Supreme Court, the lower court’s “one-sentence denial” of Andrus’ ineffective assistance of counsel claim does not “conclusively reveal” whether the lower court preformed a prejudice analysis. So, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court for it to “properly” consider whether Andrus was prejudiced by ineffective assistance of counsel.
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, opined that the lower court clearly stated that it didn’t think Andrus was prejudiced by the ineffective assistance of counsel. According to Alito, “the failure to explain is not the same as failure to decide.”
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.