High Court may tackle ineffective assistance of counsel


SCOTUSblog reports that one of the petitions to watch at today’s private conference is Bell v. Kelly, a criminal case where the issue is “whether 28 U.S.C 2254, the federal habeas provision governing claims adjudicated on the merits in state court, should be applied to claims based on evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel the state court refused to consider.”

In Bell, a Virginia jury convicted Edward N. Bell of murdering Winchester police sergeant Ricky L. Timbrook, and he was sentenced to death. After unsuccessfully appealing his conviction and sentence in state court on direct review and in state habeas proceedings, Bell filed a petition in federal district court for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court dismissed Bell’s petition and he appealed to the Fourth Circuit, arguing that the district court erred in concluding that the dismissal by the state court of his ineffective assistance of counsel claim was reasonable.

The Fourth Circuit opinion first addressed the ineffective assistance of counsel claim:

To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, Bell must demonstrate (1) deficient performance, meaning that “counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” in light of “prevailing professional norms;” and (2) prejudice, meaning that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

Bell argued 1) his counsel was deficient for failing to investigate and present available mitigating evidence from his ex-girlfriend, ex-wife, ex-wife’s sister, ex-girlfriend’s mother, and a co-worker; 2) if counsel had presented such evidence, there is a reasonable probability that he would have received a life sentence, and; 3) the findings of the Supreme Court of Virginia to the contrary were unreasonable.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed with Bell, holding the district court correctly concluded that the finding of the Supreme Court of Virginia was reasonable.

Evidence from each of these witnesses was cross-purpose because it would have allowed the prosecution to emphasize multiple instances of Bell’s infidelity; abandonment of his children, wife and girlfriend; domestic abuse; and failure to provide child support. Furthermore, focusing on Bell’s domestic relationships likely would have caused the jury to compare Bell unfavorably to Officer Timbrook, whose death left behind a pregnant wife. When weighed against the aggravating factors of Bell’s criminal record and propensity for violence, we find it reasonable for the Supreme Court of Virginia to conclude that the factors in aggravation outweighed the mitigation evidence.

SCOTUSblog has the case documents here.