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Wiggins v. Smith

Supreme Court of the United States

March 24, 2003, Argued ; June 26, 2003, Decided

No. 02-311

Opinion

 [**2531]   [*514]  Justice O'Connor delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, Kevin Wiggins, argues that his attorneys' failure to investigate his background and present mitigating evidence of his unfortunate life history at his capital sentencing proceedings violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. In this case, we consider whether the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit erred in upholding the [****10]  Maryland Court of Appeals' rejection of this claim.

On September 17, 1988, police discovered 77-year-old Florence Lacs drowned in the bathtub of her ransacked apartment in [**2532]  Woodlawn, Maryland.  Wiggins v. State, 352 Md. 580, 585, 724 A.2d 1, 5 (1999). The State indicted petitioner for the crime on October 20, 1988, and later filed a notice of intention to seek the death penalty.  Two Baltimore County public defenders, Carl Schlaich and Michelle Nethercott, assumed responsibility for Wiggins' case. In July 1989, petitioner elected to be tried before a judge in Baltimore County  [*515]  Circuit Court. Ibid. On August 4, after a 4-day trial, the court found petitioner guilty of first-degree murder, robbery, and two counts of theft. App. 32.

After his conviction, Wiggins elected to be sentenced by a jury, and the trial court scheduled the proceedings to begin on October 11, 1989. On September 11, counsel filed a motion for bifurcation of sentencing  [***481]  in hopes of presenting Wiggins' case in two phases. Id., at 34. Counsel intended first to prove that Wiggins did not act as a "principal in the first degree," ibid.--i.e., that he did not kill the victim by [****11]  his own hand. See Md. Ann. Code, Art. 27, § 413 (1996) (requiring proof of direct responsibility for death eligibility). Counsel then intended, if necessary, to present a mitigation case. In the memorandum in support of their motion, counsel argued that bifurcation would enable them to present each case in its best light; separating the two cases would prevent the introduction of mitigating evidence from diluting their claim that Wiggins was not directly responsible for the murder. App. 36-42, 37.

On October 12, the court denied the bifurcation motion, and sentencing proceedings commenced immediately thereafter. In her opening statement, Nethercott told the jurors they would hear evidence suggesting that someone other than Wiggins actually killed Lacs. Id., at 70-71. Counsel then explained that the judge would instruct them to weigh Wiggins' clean record as a factor against a death sentence. She concluded: "You're going to hear that Kevin Wiggins has had a difficult life. It has not been easy for him. But he's worked. He's tried to be a productive citizen, and he's reached the age of 27 with no convictions for prior crimes of violence and no convictions, period. . . . I think [****12]  that's an important thing for you to consider." Id., at 72. During the proceedings themselves, however, counsel introduced no evidence of Wiggins' life history.

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539 U.S. 510 *; 123 S. Ct. 2527 **; 156 L. Ed. 2d 471 ***; 2003 U.S. LEXIS 5014 ****; 71 U.S.L.W. 4560; 2003 Cal. Daily Op. Service 5586; 2003 Daily Journal DAR 7015; 16 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 459

KEVIN WIGGINS, Petitioner v. SEWALL SMITH, WARDEN, et al.

Prior History:  [****1] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT.

 Wiggins v. Corcoran, 288 F.3d 629, 2002 U.S. App. LEXIS 8390 (4th Cir. Md., 2002)

Disposition: Reversed and remanded.

CORE TERMS

records, sexual abuse, investigate, sentencing, social history, mitigation, mitigating evidence, social services, counsel's investigation, state court, childhood, state-court, trial attorney, proceedings, hearsay, murder, direct responsibility, foster home, postconviction, proffer, social worker, trial counsel, bifurcation, ineffective, foster, postconviction proceedings, factual determination, court's decision, strategic, reasonable probability

Criminal Law & Procedure, Jurisdiction, Cognizable Issues, General Overview, Governments, Courts, Judicial Precedent, Counsel, Effective Assistance of Counsel, Tests for Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, Standards of Review, Deferential Review, Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, Torts, Standards of Care, Appropriate Standard, Objectivity, Sentencing, Capital Punishment, Aggravating Circumstances, Mitigating Circumstances, Presentence Reports, Sexual Assault, Abuse of Adults, Imposition of Sentence, Allocution, Sentencing, Evidence, Civil Procedure, Judicial Officers, Judges, Discretionary Powers, Evidence, Relevance, Preservation of Relevant Evidence, Exclusion & Preservation by Prosecutors