In this Emerging Issues commentary, Professor Eli Wald discusses the legal issues decided by the court in the case of Wood v. Allen, 130 S. Ct. 841 (U.S. 2010). The court scrutinized the defense attorney's decision to not introduce mitigating evidence about the defendant's mental deficiencies during the penalty phase of his murder trial. He writes:
"The Court granted review of the question whether the state court reasonably determined that Wood's counsel made a strategic decision not to pursue or present evidence of his mental deficiencies at the penalty stage of his trial."
"The Court held that the state court's finding that petitioner's counsel made a strategic decision not to pursue or present evidence of Wood's mental deficiencies at the penalty phase was not an unreasonable determination of facts in light of the evidence presented at the state court proceedings."
"Wood demonstrates the difficulty of practically striking a balance between deference to attorneys' exercise of professional judgment and guaranteeing petitioners' constitutional rights. The majority relies on a conceptually sound distinction between reviewing whether a lawyer made a decision and reviewing whether that decision was reasonable. For the majority, to withstand scrutiny, counsel needed to simply exercise their professional judgment and make a decision. Explicitly rejecting Justice Stevens' dissent, the majority found that it 'conflates the question whether a decision was strategic with the question whether a strategic decision was reasonable.' However, clear conceptual distinctions sometimes collapse when applied to actual facts pointed out the dissent. In Wood, for example, counsel's decision was so unreasonable as to suggest it was not a strategic decision."
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Eli Wald is the Charles W. Delaney Jr. Associate Professor of Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, where he teaches in the areas of legal ethics and legal profession. He is the author of numerous law review articles examining topics such as the regulation of the corporate bar, increased lawyer mobility, attorney-client communications, the fiduciary duties of lawyers and the organization and culture of large law firms. Prof. Wald, a Continuing Legal Education instructor and expert witness, is a member of the Colorado Supreme Court Standing Committee on the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct and a member of the Colorado Bar Association's Ethics Committee.