Com. v. Pierce

Decision Date09 June 1987
Citation527 A.2d 973,515 Pa. 153
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Charles PIERCE, Appellant. 47 E.D. 1986
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

John W. Packel, Chief, Appeals Division, Jules Epstein, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Gaele McLaughlin Barthold, Deputy Dist. Atty., Ronald Eisenberg, Chief, Appeals Unit, Marianne Cox, Philadelphia, for appellee.

Before NIX, C.J., and LARSEN, FLAHERTY, McDERMOTT, HUTCHINSON, ZAPPALA and PAPADAKOS, JJ.

OPINION OF THE COURT

PAPADAKOS, Justice.

In this appeal, once again we are required to consider the standard for analyzing ineffectiveness of counsel claims and are specifically asked to compare our previously announced standard of Commonwealth ex rel. Washington v. Maroney, 427 Pa. 599, 235 A.2d 349 (1967), with the United States Supreme Court standard set forth in its recent decision of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984).

Charles Pierce, Appellant, was convicted by a jury and sentenced to serve a term of imprisonment of not less than four nor more than ten years for aggravated assault. On appeal to Superior Court, Appellant challenged his trial counsel's actions in introducing Appellant's prior incarceration into testimony and in failing to object to the trial court's charge defining circumstantial evidence. Characterizing both actions as ineffective assistance of counsel, Appellant argued that he was denied a fair trial by his trial counsel's actions and, therefore, is entitled to a new trial. A panel of the Superior Court agreed with Appellant's allegation and, by its opinion of October 14, 1983, reversed the judgment of sentence imposed on Appellant and remanded the matter for a new trial.

The Commonwealth thereupon sought, and was granted, its petition to reargue this matter before an en banc panel of the Superior Court which, by its opinion and order of September 6, 1985, vacated the panel opinion and affirmed the judgment of sentence. Commonwealth v. Pierce, 345 Pa.Superior Ct. 324, 498 A.2d 423 (1985). In a comprehensive opinion, Superior Court analyzed Appellant's ineffectiveness claims and rejected them using our Maroney standard and adopted as part of that analysis a prejudice standard as found in Strickland.

We granted Appellant's Petition for Allowance of Appeal to consider how our Maroney standard and the Strickland standard compare, and whether Superior Court's analysis comports with our notions of how ineffective assistance of counsel allegations should be analyzed.

Appellant argues that Superior Court's analysis of his ineffectiveness claim is at variance with Maroney and Commonwealth v. Badger, 482 Pa. 240, 393 A.2d 642 (1978). He argues these cases forbid consideration of a harmless error or prejudice test as part of determining whether counsel's actions had a reasonable basis or after a finding that counsel's actions were ineffective.

According to Appellant's reading of Maroney and Badger, a determination of ineffectiveness is prejudicial per se, and the defendant is not required to demonstrate that the ineffectiveness resulted in actual prejudice to his case. Appellant further argues that Superior Court's linkage of Strickland into Maroney in order to deny his claim of ineffectiveness constitutes reversible error. In short, he alleges that Strickland's prejudice requirement is not presently part of the jurisprudence of this Commonwealth and, indeed, should not be infused into our law. For the following reasons, we reject Appellant's arguments and affirm the Order of Superior Court.

Strickland was the result of numerous legal efforts to deal with competing arguments regarding the effect of counsel's incompetency. Two views have emerged on this subject. 1 On the one hand, some argue that ineffectiveness is per se a violation of the Sixth Amendment and is, automatically, a prejudice to the defendant's case. This prophylactic guideline often is labelled as a "categorical approach." 2 A contrasting view insists that ineffectiveness must be linked specifically to a reasonable demonstration that it had an adverse effect on the outcome of the case: the impairment must have been sufficiently serious to have had an effect on the reliability of the outcome of the proceeding.

Strickland's major thrust is directed at establishing the rule that ineffective assistance mandates relief only where it has been established by the defendant that "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Strickland 466 U.S. at 694, 104 S.Ct. at 2068, 80 L.Ed.2d at 698. Often referred to as the "judgmental approach," 3 the commanding intent of Strickland is to burden the defendant with the task of proving actual prejudice. Eschewing "mechanical rules" for a "totality of circumstances test," Strickland requires that:

Convicted defendant's claim that counsel's assistance was so defective as to require reversal of a conviction ... has two components. First, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient. This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the "counsel" guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced that defense. This requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable. Unless a defendant makes both showings, it cannot be said that the conviction ... resulted from a breakdown in the adversary process that renders the result unreliable.

Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687, 104 S.Ct. at 2064, 80 L.Ed.2d at 693. Strickland, therefore, directs the review of the appellate court at the reliability of the verdict rather than at the quality of counsel's performance. It emphatically rejects the argument that an exclusive categorical approach is required by the Sixth Amendment.

Our standard governing ineffectiveness claims was set forth in Commonwealth ex rel. Washington v. Maroney, 427 Pa. 599, 235 A.2d 349 (1967), which requires that we independently review the record and examine counsel's stewardship in light of the available alternatives. As we stressed in Maroney:

Our inquiry ceases and counsel's assistance is deemed constitutionally effective once we are able to conclude that the particular course chosen by counsel had some reasonable basis designed to effectuate his client's interests. The test is not whether other alternatives were more reasonable, employing a hindsight evaluation of the record. Although weigh the alternatives we must, the balance tips in favor of a finding of effective assistance as soon as it is determined that trial counsel's decision had any reasonable basis.

Id., at 604, 235 A.2d at 352-353.

Our cases clearly indicate that ineffectiveness claims are measured by two components. First, counsel's performance is evaluated in light of its reasonableness if it is determined that the underlying claim is of arguable merit. Commonwealth v. Stoyko, 504 Pa. 455, 475 A.2d 714 (1984); Commonwealth v. Wade, 501 Pa. 331, 461 A.2d 613 (1983); Commonwealth v. Hubbard, 472 Pa. 259, 372 A.2d 687 (1977). We also presume that counsel is acting effectively. Commonwealth v. Miller, 494 Pa. 229, 431 A.2d 233 (1981).

Second, we have required that the defendant demonstrate how the ineffectiveness prejudiced him. Commonwealth v. Clemmons, 505 Pa. 356, 497 A.2d 955 (1984); Commonwealth v. Vogel, 501 Pa. 314, 461 A.2d 604 (1983) cert. denied 465 U.S. 1104, 104 S.Ct. 1603, 80 L.Ed.2d 133 (1984); Commonwealth v. Johnson, 490 Pa. 312, 416 A.2d 485 (1980); Commonwealth v. Weathers El, 485 Pa. 28, 400 A.2d 1295 (1979); Maroney, supra. These same principles were also recently reaffirmed in Commonwealth v. Buehl, 510 Pa. 363, 508 A.2d 1167 (1986); Commonwealth v. Albrecht, 510 Pa. 603, 511 A.2d 764 (1986); Commonwealth v. Christy, 511 Pa. 490, 515 A.2d 832 (1986); and Commonwealth v. Bennett, 512 Pa. 525, 517 A.2d 1248 (1986).

Appellant, however, reads Maroney to mean that once a court determines that no reasonable basis exists for counsel's performance, that he has been prejudiced a fortiori. In Maroney we noted:

Cases such as Commonwealth ex rel. Gallagher v. Rundle, 423 Pa. 356, 223 A.2d 736 (1966), and Commonwealth ex rel. Jones v. Maroney, 417 Pa. 567, 209 A.2d 285 (1965), indicate that, for relief to be granted, appellant must demonstrate that counsel's ineffectiveness worked to his prejudice. Appellant, however, advances the proposition that any requirement of prejudice is inconsistent with White v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 59, 83 S.Ct. 1050 (1963), and Hamilton v. Alabama, 368 U.S. 52, 82 S.Ct. 157 (1961). Since our test requires that we examine the approach employed by trial counsel in light of the available alternatives, a finding of ineffectiveness could never be made unless we concluded that the alternatives not chosen offered a potential for success substantially greater than the tactics actually utilized. Obviously, then, if there is no reasonable basis to support trial counsel's decisions (a finding prerequisite to a conclusion of ineffectiveness), his decisions a fortiori were prejudicial to the client.

Maroney 427 Pa. at 605 n. 8, 235 A.2d at 353 n. 8.

In determining whether counsel's performance had any reasonable basis, Appellant points to Commonwealth v. Badger, 482 Pa. 240, 393 A.2d 642 (1978), where we cautioned a reviewing court that:

In examining the alternatives a court may not utilize a harmless error analysis, and the alternatives must be examined only as a means of determining whether the course chosen had some reasonable basis.

Id., at 244, 393 A.2d at 644.

Appellant's reading of this portion of Maroney and Badger equates prejudice as the unreasonableness of counsel's performance. Appellant argues that these cases provide that if counsel had...

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