Andrus v. Texas (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2020)
Sixth Amendment/Ineffective Assistance – Trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective based on failure to perform mitigation investigation, putting up mitigating evidence that backfired by bolstering the state’s case, failing to investigate the state’s aggravating evidence, and failing to present significant mitigating evidence that he could have discovered.
The Supreme Court vacated a death sentence based on a finding that the defendant demonstrated counsel’s deficient performance and that the state appellate court had failed to properly consider the potential prejudice by that deficient performance.
Petitioner Terence Andus asserted that he had received ineffective assistance when his trial counsel failed to present or even investigate substantial mitigating evidence for the penalty phase of his capital trial, including evidence regarding his upbringing in extreme poverty and exposure to violence and drugs from an early age.
On a state habeas petition, Andrus raised the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel, and the trial court recommended granting the petition, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied it. The appellate court concluded without explanation that Andrus had failed to satisfy his burden of showing ineffective assistance under Strickland v. Washington.
A majority of the Supreme Court held that Andrus had proven deficient performance as a matter of law. At trial, defense counsel did not contest guilty. During the penalty phase after Andrus was found guilty, he only initially put up Andrus’ mother and biological father as witnesses. Andrus’ mother testified to basic biographical facts and whitewashed her history of drug use and abuse while Andrus was a child. Andrus’ father had only lived with Andrus for a year and had not seen him in six years.
The defense attempted to rest, but after a sidebar with the trial court where this decision was questioned, the defense counsel called an expert witness who testified on the general effects of drug use on adolescent brains, a prison counselor who had worked with Andrus, and Andrus himself, who described his exposure and use of drugs at an early age. Andrus was sentenced to death.
The Supreme Court’s opinion detailed Andrus’ horrific upbringing, suicide attempts, and other mitigating evidence, and concluded that defense counsel’s performance was deficient in performing “almost no mitigation investigation,” putting up mitigating evidence that backfired by bolstering the state’s case, failing to investigate the state’s aggravating evidence, and failing to present significant mitigating evidence that he could have discovered.
The Court reversed the Texas court’s denial, holding that, while trial counsel had been ineffective, the record was unclear in whether the Texas court’s analysis “considered Strickland prejudice at all.” The Texas court had written a one-sentence denial denying Andrus’ Strickland without specifying its grounds. Accordingly, the Court remanded for consideration of the prejudice prong of Strickland.
Dissenting, Justice Alito, arguing that the Texas court had adequately addressed prejudice in its one sentence stating that Andrus “failed to meet his burden” under Strickland to show ineffective assistance and prejudice.
Per Curiam Opinion
Dissent by Alito, joined by Thomas and Gorsuch
Click here to read the opinion.