The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment

Sixth Amendment

How does the court determine if a defendant received effective assistance of counsel?

The Sixth Amendment provides as a basic freedom “the assistance of counsel.” This means that a criminal defendant charged with a serious crime can receive an attorney appointed to represent him or her even if he or she cannot afford such counsel. But, the Sixth Amendment-based freedom means more than this. It also means that the defendant should receive competent counsel. Sometimes, criminal defendants challenge their underlying criminal conviction by asserting a so-called “ineffective assistance of counsel” claim either in state post-conviction proceedings or in federal habeas corpus proceedings. Both state post-conviction proceedings and federal habeas corpus proceedings take place after the trial and direct appeal in a criminal case.

In its 1984 decision Strickland v. Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court identified the standard for determining whether a defendant truly received “ineffective assistance of counsel.” First, the defendant must show that his counsel was deficient and fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. This means that the attorney failed to perform as a reasonably competent attorney would under the circumstances. Then, the defendant must also show that the attorney’s deficient performance actually prejudiced the defendant, meaning that it likely impacted the outcome of the criminal trial proceeding. Thus, there are two prongs to the Strickland v. Washington test: (1) a deficiency prong and (2) a prejudice prong.

It is very difficult to establish ineffective assistance of counsel, but some criminal defendants have been successful. One example is when a criminal defendant is able to show that his trial attorney failed to subpoena a key alibi witness crucial to the defense theory of the case. Another example would be if a criminal defendant could show that his trial counsel failed to advise him or her about a favorable plea bargain offer by the prosecution. Still another example would be where a criminal defense attorney failed to file a motion in court to suppress evidence that was seized unlawfully by the police.


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