Lockhart v. Fretwell

Decision Date25 January 1993
Docket NumberNo. 91-1393,91-1393
Citation122 L.Ed.2d 180,113 S.Ct. 838,506 U.S. 364
PartiesA.L. LOCKHART, Director, Arkansas Department of Correction, Petitioner v. Bobby Ray FRETWELL
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus*

An Arkansas jury convicted respondent Fretwell of capital felony murder and sentenced him to death, finding, inter alia, the aggravating factor that the murder, which occurred during a robbery, was committed for pecuniary gain. On direct appeal, Fretwell argued that his sentence was unconstitutional under the then-existing Eighth Circuit precedent of Collins v. Lockhart, 754 F.2d 258, because it was based on an aggravating factor that duplicated an element of the underlying felony—murder in the course of a robbery. However, the State Supreme Court declined to consider whether to follow Collins because Fretwell had not objected to the aggravator's use during the sentencing phase, and that court later rejected a state habeas corpus challenge in which he raised an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The District Court conditionally vacated his sentence on federal habeas, holding that counsel's failure to raise the Collins objection amounted to prejudice under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 in which deficient performance and prejudice were identified as the two components of any ineffective assistance claim. Although the Court of Appeals had overruled Collins, it affirmed, reasoning that the trial court would have sustained a Collins objection had it been made at Fretwell's trial and the jury would not have sentenced him to death.

Held: Counsel's failure to make the Collins objection during the sentencing proceeding did not constitute prejudice within the meaning of Strickland v. Washington, supra. To show prejudice under Strickland, a defendant must demonstrate that counsel's errors are so serious as to deprive him of a trial whose result is unfair or unreliable, id., at 687, 104 S.Ct. at 2064, not merely that the outcome would have been different. Unfairness or unreliability does not result unless counsel's ineffectiveness deprives the defendant of a substantive or procedural right to which the law entitles him. The sentencing proceeding's result in the present case was neither unfair nor unreliable, because the Court of Appeals, which had decided Collins in 1985, overruled it in Perry v. Lockhart, 871 F.2d 1384, 4 years later. Thus, respondent suffered no prejudice from his counsel's deficient performance. Contrary to Fretwell's argument, prejudice is not determined under the laws existing at the time of trial. Although contemporary assessment of counsel's conduct is used when determining the deficient performance component of the Strickland test, the prejudice component, with its focus on fairness and reliability, does not implicate the same concerns that motivated the former component's adoption: that a more rigid requirement could dampen the ardor and impair the independence of defense counsel, discourage the acceptance of assigned cases, and undermine the trust between attorney and client. The instant holding is not inconsistent with the retroactivity rule announced in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 310, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 1075, 103 L.Ed.2d 334. The circumstances that gave rise to that rule do not apply to claims raised by a federal habeas petitioner, who has no interest in the finality of the state court judgment under which he was incarcerated and, unlike the States, ordinarily has no claim of reliance on past judicial precedent as a basis for his actions. Pp. ____.

946 F.2d 571 (CA8 1991), reversed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., and THOMAS, J., filed concurring opinions. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined.

General Winston Bryant, Little Rock, AR, for petitioner.

Amy L. Wax, DC, for U.S. as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner.

Ricky Reed Medlock, Little Rock, AR, (appointed by this Court), for respondent.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case we decide whether counsel's failure to make an objection in a state criminal sentencing proceeding—an objection that would have been supported by a decision which subsequently was overruled—constitutes "prejudice" within the meaning of our decision in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). Because the result of the sentencing proceeding in this case was rendered neither unreliable nor fundamentally unfair as a result of counsel's failure to make the objection, we answer the question in the negative. To hold otherwise would grant criminal defendants a windfall to which they are not entitled.

In August 1985, an Arkansas jury convicted respondent Bobby Ray Fretwell of capital felony murder. During the penalty phase, the State argued that the evidence presented during the guilt phase established two aggravating factors: (1) the murder was committed for pecuniary gain, and (2) the murder was committed to facilitate respondent's escape. Finding the existence of the first of these factors, and no mitigating factors, the jury sentenced respondent to death.

On direct appeal, respondent argued, inter alia, that his sentence should be reversed in light of Collins v. Lockhart, 754 F.2d 258 (CA8), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1013, 106 S.Ct. 546, 88 L.Ed.2d 475 (1985). In that case the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that a death sentence is unconstitutional if it is based on an aggravating factor that duplicates an element of the underlying felony, because such a factor does not genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty. Accordingly, respondent argued that his death sentence was unconstitutional because pecuniary gain is an element of the underlying felony in his capital felony murder conviction—murder in the course of a robbery. The Arkansas Supreme Court declined to consider whether to follow Collins because respondent failed to object to the use of the pecuniary gain aggravator during the sentencing proceeding. Rejecting the remainder of respondent's claims, the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed both the conviction and the death sentence. Fretwell v. State, 289 Ark. 91, 708 S.W.2d 630 (1986). Respondent then filed a state habeas corpus challenge, arguing that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to raise the Collins objection. The Arkansas Supreme Court rejected the claim because the Arkansas courts had not passed on the Collins question at the time of respondent's trial. Fretwell v. State, 292 Ark. 96, 97, 728 S.W.2d 180, 181 (1987).

Respondent filed a petition seeking federal habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Among other things, he argued that his trial counsel did not perform effectively because he failed to raise the Collins objection. The District Court held that counsel "had a duty to be aware of all law relevant to death penalty cases," and that failure to make the Collins objection amounted to prejudice under Strickland v. Washington, supra. 739 F.Supp. 1334, 1337 (ED Ark.1990). The District Court granted habeas relief and conditionally vacated respondent's death sentence. Id., at 1338.

The Court of Appeals affirmed by a divided vote, 946 F.2d 571 (CA8 1991), even though it had two years earlier overruled its decision in Collins in light of our decision in Lowenfield v. Phelps, 484 U.S. 231, 108 S.Ct. 546, 98 L.Ed.2d 568 (1988). See Perry v. Lockhart, 871 F.2d 1384 (CA8), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 959, 110 S.Ct. 378, 107 L.Ed.2d 363 (1989). The majority believed that the Arkansas trial court was bound under the Supremacy Clause to obey the Eighth Circuit's interpretation of the Federal Constitution. Based on this belief, it reasoned that had counsel made the objection, the trial court would have sustained the objection and the jury would not have sentenced respondent to death. The court remanded, ordering the district court to sentence respondent to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. It held that since respondent was entitled to the benefit of Collins at the time of his original sentencing proceeding, it would only "perpetuate the prejudice caused by the original sixth amendment violation" to resentence him under current law. 946 F.2d, at 578.

The dissenting judge argued that Strickland prejudice involves more than a determination that the outcome would have been different—it also involves the concepts of reliability and fairness. 946 F.2d, at 579 ("By focusing only on the probable effect of counsel's error at the time of Fretwell's sentencing, the majority misses the broader and more important point that his sentencing proceeding reached neither an unreliable nor an unfair result"). We granted certiorari, 504 U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 1935, 118 L.Ed.2d 542 (1992), and now reverse.

Our decisions have emphasized that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel exists "in order to protect the fundamental right to a fair trial." Strickland v. Washington, supra, 466 U.S., at 684, 104 S.Ct., at 2062; Nix v. Whiteside, 475 U.S. 157, 175, 106 S.Ct. 988, 998, 89 L.Ed.2d 123 (1986) (noting that under Strickland, the "benchmark" of the right to counsel is the "fairness of the adversary proceeding"); United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 653, 104 S.Ct. 2039, 2043, 80 L.Ed.2d 657 (1984) ("Without counsel, the right to a trial itself would be of little avail") (internal quotation marks and footnote omitted); United States v. Morrison, 449 U.S. 361, 364, 101 S.Ct. 665, 667, 66 L.Ed.2d 564 (1981) (the right to counsel "is meant to assure fairness in the adversary criminal process"). Thus, "the right to the effective assistance of counsel is recognized not for its own sake, but because of the effect it has on the ability of the accused to receive a fair trial. Absent some...

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