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Habeas Corpus and Ineffective Assistance of Counsel: Plea Bargains and Decisions from State Courts

Decided January 19, 2011 United States Supreme Court
Issue : whether the defendant’s trial attorney provided ineffective assistance by failing to seek suppression of defendant’s confession to police before advising defendant regarding the plea and is the defendant entitled to Habeas relief where the state court ruled that a motion to suppress would have been fruitless because defendant had confessed to two other people that were not police officers.

Held : Counsel for the defendant was not ineffective and the defendant was not entitled to Habeas relief.

Facts : Moore and two confederates attacked Kenneth Rogers at his home and bloodied him before tying him with duct tape and throwing him in the trunk of a car. They drove into the Oregon countryside, where Moore shot Rogers in the temple, killing him.

Afterwards, Moore and one of his accomplices told two people-Moore’s brother and the accomplice’s girlfriend about the crimes. Moore and his accomplice repeated this account to the police. On the advice of counsel Moore agreed to plead no contest to felony murder in exchange for a sentence of 300 months. Moore later filed for postconviction relief in an Oregon state court, alleging that he had been denied his right to effective assistance of counsel. He complained that his lawyer had not filed a motion to suppress his confession to police in advance of the lawyer’s advice that Moore considered before accepting the plea offer. After an evidentiary hearing, the Oregon court concluded a “motion to suppress would have been fruitless” in light of the other admissible confession by Moore, to which two witnesses could testify.

Decision and Analysis :

Under 28 U. S. C. §2254(d), federal habeas relief may not be granted with respect to any claim a state court has adjudicated on the merits unless, among other exceptions, the state-court decision denying relief involves “an unreasonable application” of “clearly established Federal law, as determined by” this Court. The relevant federal law is the standard for ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland, which requires a showing of “both deficient performance by counsel and prejudice.

The statutory authority of federal courts to issue habeas corpus relief for persons in state custody is defined by 28 U. S. C. §2254, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The text of §2254(d) states:

“An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the


“(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or

involved an unreasonable application of, clearly estab

lished Federal law, as determined by the Supreme

Court of the United States; or

“(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an un

reasonable determination of the facts in light of the

evidence presented in the State court proceeding.”

AEDPA prohibits federal habeas relief for any claim adjudicated on the merits in state court, unless one of the exceptions listed in §2254(d) obtains. To establish ineffective assistance of counsel “a defendant must show both deficient performance by counsel and prejudice.” Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U. S. ___, ___ (2009) (slip op., at 10).

In addressing this standard and its relationship to AEDPA, the Court today in Richter, ante, at 14-16, gives the following explanation: “To establish deficient performance, a person challenging a conviction must show that “counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.’ [Strickland,] 466 U. S., at 688. A court considering a claim of ineffective assistance must apply a “strong presumption’ that counsel’s representation was within the “wide range’ of reasonable professional assistance. Id., at 689. The challenger’s burden is to show “that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the “counsel” guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.’

With respect to prejudice, a challenger must demonstrate “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Federal habeas courts must guard against the danger of equating unreasonableness under Strickland with unreasonableness under §2254(d). When §2254(d) applies, the question is not whether counsel’s actions were reasonable. The question is whether there is any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland’s deferential standard.

Finding that any “motion to suppress would have been fruitless,” the state postconviction court concluded that Moore had not received ineffective assistance of counsel. App. 140. The state court did not specify whether this was because there was no deficient performance under Strickland or because Moore suffered no Strickland prejudice, or both. To overcome the limitation imposed by § 2254(d), the Court of Appeals had to conclude that both findings would have involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. A state-court adjudication of the performance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment cannot be “contrary to” Fulminante, for Fulminante-which involved the admission of an involuntary confession in violation of the Fifth Amendment-says nothing about the Strickland standard of effectiveness. See Bell v. Cone, 535 U. S. 685, 694 (2002) (“A federal habeas court may issue the writ under

the “contrary to’ clause if the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in our cases, or if it decides a case differently than we have done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts”).

The Fulminante prejudice inquiry presumes a constitutional violation, whereas Strickland seeks to define one. The state court accepted counsel’s view that seeking to suppress Moore’s second confession would have been “fruitless.” It would not have been unreasonable to conclude that counsel could incorporate that view into his assessment of a plea offer, a subject with which Fulminante is in no way concerned.

The accounts of Moore’s second confession to his brother and his accomplice’s girlfriend corroborated each other, were given to people without apparent reason to lie, and were reported without delay.

The State gave no indication that its felony-murder prosecution depended on the admission of the police confession, and Moore does not now deny that he kidnaped

and killed Rogers. Given all this, an unconstitutional admission of Moore’s confession to police might well have been found harmless even on direct review if Moore had gone to trial after the denial of a suppression motion.

There are certain differences between inadequate assistance of counsel claims in cases where there was a full trial on the merits and those, like this one, where a plea was entered even before the prosecution decided upon all of the charges. A trial provides the full written record and factual background that serve to limit and clarify some of the choices counsel made. Still, hindsight cannot suffice for relief when counsel’s choices were reasonable and legitimate based on predictions of how the trial would proceed.

There is a most substantial burden on the claimant to show ineffective assistance. The plea process brings to the criminal justice system a stability and a certainty that must not be undermined by the prospect of collateral challenges in cases not only where witnesses and evidence have disappeared, but also in cases where witnesses and evidence

were not presented in the first place. The substantial burden to show ineffective assistance of counsel, the burden the claimant must meet to avoid the plea, has not been met in this case. The state postconviction court’s decision involved no unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent.