475 U.S. 157 (1986), 84-1321, Nix v. Whiteside

Docket Nº:No. 84-1321
Citation:475 U.S. 157, 106 S.Ct. 988, 89 L.Ed.2d 123, 54 U.S.L.W. 4194
Party Name:Nix v. Whiteside
Case Date:February 26, 1986
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 157

475 U.S. 157 (1986)

106 S.Ct. 988, 89 L.Ed.2d 123, 54 U.S.L.W. 4194

Nix

v.

Whiteside

No. 84-1321

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 26, 1986

Argued November 5, 1985

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In preparing for his Iowa state court trial on a murder charge, respondent consistently told his attorney that, although he had not actually seen a gun in the victim's hand when he stabbed the victim, he was convinced that the victim had a gun. Respondent's companions who were present during the stabbing told counsel that they had not seen a gun, and no gun was found. Counsel advised respondent that the existence of a gun was not necessary to establish a claim of self-defense, and that only a reasonable belief that the victim had a gun nearby was necessary, even though no gun was actually present. However, during preparation for direct examination shortly before trial, respondent for the first time told counsel that he had seen "something metallic" in the victim's hand. When asked about this, respondent said: "If I don't say I saw a gun, I'm dead." On respondent's insisting that he would testify that he saw "something metallic," counsel told him that, if he testified falsely, it would be counsel's duty to advise the court that he felt respondent was committing perjury, and that counsel probably would be allowed to impeach that testimony and would seek to withdraw from representation if respondent insisted on committing perjury. Respondent ultimately testified as originally contemplated, admitting on cross-examination that he had not actually seen a gun in the victim's hand. After the jury found respondent guilty, respondent moved for a new trial, claiming that he had been deprived of a fair trial by counsel's admonitions not to state that he saw a gun or "something metallic." The court denied the motion after a hearing, and the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, holding that counsel's actions were not only permissible, but were required under Iowa law. Respondent then sought federal habeas corpus relief, alleging that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel by his attorney's refusal to allow him to testify as he proposed. The District Court denied relief, but the Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that an intent to commit perjury, communicated to counsel, does not alter a defendant's right to effective assistance of counsel, and that counsel's threatened violation of his client's confidences violated the "effective representation" standards set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668.

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Held: The Sixth Amendment right of a criminal defendant to assistance of counsel is not violated when an attorney refuses to cooperate with the defendant in presenting perjured testimony at his trial. Pp. 164-176.

(a) Strickland v. Washington, supra, held that, to obtain relief by way of federal habeas corpus on a claim of a deprivation of effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment, the movant must establish both serious attorney error and prejudice. The Sixth Amendment inquiry is into whether the attorney's conduct was "reasonably effective." A court must be careful not to narrow the wide range of attorney conduct acceptable under the Sixth Amendment so restrictively as to constitutionalize particular standards of professional [106 S.Ct. 990] conduct, and thereby intrude into a state's proper authority to define and apply the standards of professional conduct applicable to those it admits to practice in its courts. Pp. 164-166.

(b) Counsel's conduct here fell within the wide range of professional responses to threatened client perjury acceptable under the Sixth Amendment. Counsel's duty of loyalty to, and advocacy of, the defendant's cause is limited to legitimate, lawful conduct compatible with the very nature of a trial as a search for truth. Although counsel must take all reasonable lawful means to attain his client's objectives, counsel is precluded from taking steps or in any way assisting the client in presenting false evidence or otherwise violating the law. Moreover, accepted norms require that a lawyer disclose his client's perjury and frauds upon the court. Iowa's Code also expressly permits withdrawal from representation as an appropriate response of an attorney when the client threatens to commit perjury. Pp. 166-171.

(c) The Court of Appeals' holding is not supported by the record, since counsel's action, at most, deprived respondent of his contemplated perjury. Whatever the scope of a constitutional right to testify, it is elementary that such a right does not extend to testifying falsely, and the right to counsel includes no right to have a lawyer who will cooperate with planned perjury. There was no breach of professional duty in counsel's admonition to respondent that he would disclose respondent's perjury to the court. Pp. 171-175.

(d) As a matter of law, counsel's conduct here cannot establish the prejudice required for relief under the Strickland inquiry. The "conflict of interests" involved was one imposed on the attorney by the client's proposal to commit the crime of fabricating testimony. This is not the kind of conflict of interest that would render the representation constitutionally infirm. Pp. 175-176.

744 F.2d 1323, reversed.

Page 159

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 176. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 177. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 190.

BURGER, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide whether the Sixth Amendment right of a criminal defendant to assistance of counsel is violated when an attorney refuses to cooperate with the defendant in presenting perjured testimony at his trial.1

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I

A

Whiteside was convicted of second-degree murder by a jury verdict which was affirmed by the Iowa courts. The killing took place on February 8, 1977, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Whiteside and two others went to one Calvin Love's apartment late that night, seeking marihuana. Love was in bed when Whiteside and his [106 S.Ct. 991] companions arrived; an argument between Whiteside and Love over the marihuana ensued. At one point, Love directed his girlfriend to get his "piece," and at another point got up, then returned to his bed. According to Whiteside's testimony, Love then started to reach under his pillow and moved toward Whiteside. Whiteside stabbed Love in the chest, inflicting a fatal wound.

Whiteside was charged with murder, and when counsel was appointed, he objected to the lawyer initially appointed, claiming that he felt uncomfortable with a lawyer who had formerly been a prosecutor. Gary L. Robinson was then appointed, and immediately began an investigation. Whiteside gave him a statement that he had stabbed Love as the latter "was pulling a pistol from underneath the pillow on the bed." Upon questioning by Robinson, however, Whiteside indicated that he had not actually seen a gun, but that he was convinced that Love had a gun. No pistol was found on the premises; shortly after the police search following the stabbing, which had revealed no weapon, the victim's family had removed all of the victim's possessions from the apartment. Robinson interviewed Whiteside's companions who were present during the stabbing, and none had seen a gun during the incident. Robinson advised Whiteside that the existence of a gun was not necessary to establish the claim of self-defense, and that only a reasonable belief that the victim had a gun nearby was necessary, even though no gun was actually present.

Until shortly before trial, Whiteside consistently stated to Robinson that he had not actually seen a gun, but that he was

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convinced that Love had a gun in his hand. About a week before trial, during preparation for direct examination, Whiteside for the first time told Robinson and his associate Donna Paulsen that he had seen something "metallic" in Love's hand. When asked about this, Whiteside responded:

[I]n Howard Cook's case, there was a gun. If I don't say I saw a gun, I'm dead.

Robinson told Whiteside that such testimony would be perjury, and repeated that it was not necessary to prove that a gun was available, but only that Whiteside reasonably believed that he was in danger. On Whiteside's insisting that he would testify that he saw "something metallic," Robinson told him, according to Robinson's testimony:

[W]e could not allow him to [testify falsely], because that would be perjury, and, as officers of the court, we would be suborning perjury if we allowed him to do it; . . . I advised him that, if he did do that, it would be my duty to advise the Court of what he was doing, and that I felt he was committing perjury; also, that I probably would be allowed to attempt to impeach that particular testimony.

App. to Pet. for Cert. A-85. Robinson also indicated he would seek to withdraw from the representation if Whiteside insisted on committing perjury.2

Whiteside testified in his own defense at trial, and stated that he "knew" that Love had a gun, and that he believed Love was reaching for a gun, and he had acted swiftly in self-defense. On cross-examination, he admitted that he had not

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actually seen a gun in Love's hand. Robinson presented evidence that Love had been seen with a sawed-off shotgun on other occasions, that the police search of the apartment may have been careless, and that the victim's family had removed...

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