The justices revived the case of Terence Andrus, a Texas inmate who was sentenced to death for the 2008 shootings of two people during an attempted carjacking in a grocery-store parking lot. The lawyer who was appointed to defend Andrus didn’t meet with him for almost eight months, and then only met with him outside of court six times in roughly four years; the lawyer admits that he did not do any work until just before jury selection began. At the trial, the lawyer did not present any evidence of Andrus’ very difficult childhood. For example, Andrus’ mother was a prostitute and drug user, leaving him responsible for his siblings, he suffered from untreated mental illness and he was subjected to what his lawyers now describe as the “massive abuses and dysfunction” of the Texas juvenile justice system. After a Texas appeals court rejected Andrus’ request for post-conviction relief, Andrus asked the Supreme Court to review his case.
Claims that an attorney’s performance was so poor that it violated a defendant’s constitutional right to the assistance of counsel are reviewed under a standard outlined by the Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington. It is a two-part test that looks first at whether the attorney’s performance was objectively unreasonable and then, if so, at whether that deficient performance prejudiced the client. But Andrus asked the Supreme Court to “revisit” the Strickland test, telling the justices that “in this and numerous other death-penalty cases, where the representation the defendant received was patently deficient, the standard is not producing just results. The prejudice prong in particular is considered so onerous that few habeas applicants are able to satisfy it.” Andrus added that the Supreme Court’s “leadership is desperately needed to address how so many defendants can be convicted and sentenced to death in proceedings where the adversarial systems utterly failed them and yet be unable to obtain relief in a habeas proceeding.”
In an unsigned 19-page decision today, the Supreme Court sent Andrus’ case back to the Texas courts for another look. The record, the court explained, makes clear that although Andrus’ lawyer “nominally” put on a case to spare Andrus’ life, he performed virtually no investigation even though there was a “vast” body of mitigating evidence. And indeed, because the lawyer did such a poor job investigating, some of the evidence that he did present actually harmed Andrus’ case and helped the state – for example, putting on Andrus’ mother, who testified that Andrus’ home life had been “tranquil” and he had gotten involved in drugs on his own, without disclosing her own drug sales or the $10,000 life-insurance policy that she could collect if Andrus were executed.
All of the circumstances taken together, the court concluded, point in the direction of deficient performance by Andrus’ lawyer. But, the court continued, it “is unclear whether” the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal cases, considered whether Andrus was prejudiced by his lawyer’s poor performance – the second part of the Strickland test. The court seemed to suggest that the answer is yes: It noted that the “record before us raises a significant question whether the apparent ‘tidal wave’ of ‘available mitigating evidence taken as a whole’ might have sufficiently” affected the jury’s decision to establish prejudice under the second prong of Strickland. But it sent the case back to the lower court for it “to address the prejudice prong” “in a manner not inconsistent with this opinion.”
Justice Samuel Alito dissented from the ruling, in an opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Alito argued that the court’s decision was “hard to take seriously” because the lower court had specifically concluded that Andrus had not shown that he was prejudiced by his counsel’s poor performance. Indeed, Alito observed, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals “had before it strong aggravating evidence that Andrus wantonly killed two innocent victims and shot a third; that he committed other violent crimes; that he has a violent, dangerous, and unstable character; and that he is a threat to those he encounters.” Because the lower court has “already held once that Andrus failed to establish prejudice,” Alito contended, “I see no good reason why it should be required to revisit the issue.”
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.