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Law School Case Brief

Henry v. State - 948 So. 2d 609 (Fla. 2006)


If a defendant establishes that his counsel's performance was deficient, he must establish the second prong of the test for ineffective counsel as well, which requires him to show that defense counsel's actions prejudiced him. The defendant must establish that defense counsel's deficient performance was so serious that the defendant was deprived of a fair trial. To establish deprivation of a fair trial, the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the factfinder would have a reasonable doubt respecting guilt. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome. It does not require the defendant to show that counsel's deficient conduct more likely than not altered the outcome, but it does require the defendant to show that in light of all the evidence surrounding his conviction, defense counsel's conduct renders the results of the proceeding unreliable. 


Defendant John Ruthell Henry, a prisoner under sentence of death for the murder of his five-year-old stepson, E.C., appealed the denial of his motion for postconviction relief after his trial in Florida state court. On Dec. 22, 1985, Henry by his own admission, "freaked out," stabbed his estranged wife, Suzanne Henry, 13 times in the neck, and covered her body with a rug. He then picked up her son, E.C., who was watching television in another room, and drove the child to Plant City in Hillsborough County, Florida. He pulled over into an isolated area where the car got stuck in the mud. Henry and E.C. walked a short distance. Henry stopped to smoke more cocaine, took E.C. on his knee, and stabbed the boy to death. After being arrested for Suzanne's murder, and after receiving his Miranda warnings, Henry confessed to E.C.'s murder and led the police to E.C.'s body. In Aug. 1992, Henry was convicted in Florida state court. Finding that the two aggravating factors outweighed the two statutory and six nonstatutory mitigating factors, the court sentenced Henry to death. On Sept. 12, 2002, Henry filed a "Complete Post Conviction Motion to Vacate Judgment and Death Sentence" claiming that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to counsel because his counsel was ineffective for leading him to testify on direct examination during the guilt phase that he: (1) had earlier pleaded no contest to murder in the death of his first wife; (2) had served only half his sentence for that crime; (3) had stabbed both his first wife and his stepson to death; and (4) had been given the death penalty for his estranged wife's murder. Following a Huff hearing, the trial court ordered an evidentiary hearing on three of Henry's ineffective assistance of counsel claims. The trial court entered an order denying relief finding that Henry failed to meet either prong of the Strickland test. 


Was Henry denied his right to counsel?




The state supreme court found that Henry failed to establish either that his counsel's performance was deficient or that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. The testimony, which was part of a deliberate strategy to avoid a death sentence, was suggested by highly experienced criminal defense attorneys and agreed to by Henry. Furthermore, Henry did not show that there was a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's allegedly unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Thus, the trial court's denial of Henry's motion to vacate judgment and death sentence was affirmed.


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