Should the Defense Lawyer Make Efforts to Discover All Available Mitigating Evidence ?
In Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 156 L. Ed. 2d 471, 123 S. Ct. 2527 (2003), the Court stressed that defense counsel's investigations "should comprise efforts to discover all reasonably available mitigating evidence and evidence to rebut any aggravating evidence that may be introduced by the prosecutor." Id. at 2537 (quoting ABA Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Counsel in Death Penalty Cases 11.4.1(C), at 93 (1989) (hereinafter 1989 ABA Guidelines)).
Referring to ABA Guidelines, the Court noted that among those topics that should be considered for presentation are "medical history, educational history, employment and training history, family and social history, prior adult and juvenile correctional experience, and religious and cultural influences." Id. (citing 1989 ABA Guidelines 11.8.6, at 133).
In concluding that defense counsel's investigation was unreasonably deficient, the Court relied heavily on the ABA standards for capital defense, noting that such standards had long been referred to as "guides to determining what is reasonable." Id. (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688).
In Wiggins, collateral counsel's investigation discovered a wealth of mitigation that trial counsel had not presented or investigated. Id. at 2533.
The mitigation included in Wiggins' "bleak life history" indicated that he had suffered severe physical and sexual abuse from multiple individuals growing up. Id.
Additionally, his mother was a chronic alcoholic who frequently left him and his siblings at home alone for days, forcing them to beg for food and to eat paint chips and garbage. Id.
Further, despite the fact that funds were available for retaining a forensic social worker in order to prepare a detailed social history, Wiggins' trial attorneys had not done so. Id.
In collateral proceedings, Wiggins' trial counsel defended the lack of investigation or presentation of mitigating evidence, in effect arguing that these decisions were a matter of strategy and that trial counsel "decided to focus their efforts on 'retrying the factual case' and disputing Wiggins' direct responsibility for the murder." Id.
However, after reflecting on the standards that should guide counsel's actions in investigating mitigation, the Supreme Court concluded that Wiggins' defense team, who had presented none of the extensive mitigation that existed in the case during the penalty phase of the trial, had not performed the level of investigation that would allow them to make a reasonably informed decision not to present such mitigation. Id.