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Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Requires Deficiency and Prejudice to Verdict

On March 24, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated to Mirzayance that in order to succeed on a claim for ineffective assistance of defense counsel, there must be both “deficient performance” by counsel and “prejudice” at trial due to the deficient performance. Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. ___ (2009), Slip Op. at *15. Mirzayance claimed ineffective assistance of counsel in seeking a claim for habeas corpus from a federal California court because his attorney recommended withdrawing his insanity defense during the second part of a bifurcated trial for murder. Id., Slip Op. at *1.

During the first phase of a criminal trial, the prosecution has the burden of proof to show guilt of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. At trial, Mirzayance, defendant, sought to avoid a conviction for first degree murder by obtaining a verdict for second degree murder by reason of insanity (NGI) by presenting medical testimony from experts. Id., Slip Op. at *2. The jury rejected the testimony and convicted Mirzayance of first degree murder. Id. Because the jury rejected the medical testimony in the first phase of his trial, defense counsel believed that presenting the same evidence in the second or NGI phase of the trial was unlikely to be successful, especially when the burden shifted to the defendant to show his insanity. Id. Mirzayance withdrew his NGI plea upon the advice of counsel and the second or NGI phase of the trial never happened; it was scheduled for the following day after guilt was found. Id., Slip Op. at *3. After sentencing, Mirzayance challenged his conviction on the ground that he received ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

Skipping the twisted procedural posture of this case, the Court of Appeals granted relief in part because “[r]easonably effective assistance would put on the only defense available, especially in a case such as this where there was significant potential for success.” Mirzayance v. Knowles, 175 Fed. Appx. 142, 145 (CA9 2006). The Supreme Court rejects the “nothing to lose” standard (so you must try every defense) for determining whether there is ineffective assistance of counsel. Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. ___ (2009), Slip Op. at *10. The Court states that a defendant must show “both deficient performance and prejudice in order to prove that he as received ineffective assistance of counsel.” Id., Slip Op. at *11 (citing to Strickland, 466 U.S., at 687).

The Court states that the Strickland standard is a “general standard,” and a state court has “even more latitude to reasonably determine” if a defendant satisfies the standard for purposes of determining whether there was ineffective assistance of counsel. Thus, the Court is siding with the trial court’s determination that there was effective assistance and Mirzayance is not entitled to relief. Further, even if Mirzayance is entitled to relief, or eligible for de novo review, the claim would still fail because Strickland requires a defendant to establish deficient performance by defense counsel and prejudice. Id. Mirzayance can establish neither because the evidence was already rejected by the jury in the first phase of the trial and it likely would not have succeeded, especially in view of the shift in burden to the defense in the second phase of the murder trial.