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United States v. Cronic - 466 U.S. 648, 104 S. Ct. 2039 (1984)

Rule:

The presumption that counsel's assistance is essential requires the court to conclude that a trial is unfair if the accused is denied counsel at a critical stage of his trial. Similarly, if counsel entirely fails to subject the prosecution's case to meaningful adversarial testing, then there has been a denial of rights under U.S. Const. amend. VI that makes the adversary process itself presumptively unreliable. No specific showing of prejudice is required because the petitioner has been denied the right of effective cross-examination which would be constitutional error of the first magnitude and no amount of showing of want of prejudice would cure it. 

Facts:

Respondent Cronic and two associates were indicted on mail fraud charges involving a "check kiting" scheme whereby checks were transferred between a bank in Florida and a bank in Oklahoma. When Cronic's retained counsel withdrew shortly before the scheduled trial date, the federal district court appointed a young lawyer with a real estate practice who had never participated in a jury trial to represent Cronic. The district court allowed the newly-appointed counsel only 25 days to prepare for trial, even though the Government had taken over four and one-half years to investigate the case and had reviewed thousands of documents during that investigation. Cronic was convicted on 11 of 13 counts and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed because it inferred that Cronic's right to the effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment had been violated. Finding it unnecessary to inquire into counsel's actual performance at trial, the appellate court based its inference on the circumstances surrounding the representation of Cronic, particularly (1) the time afforded for investigation and preparation, (2) the experience of counsel, (3) the gravity of the charge, (4) the complexity of possible defenses, and (5) the accessibility of witnesses to counsel. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari review.

Issue:

Did the Court of Appeals err in holding that Cronic's right to the effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment had been violated based on the criteria it used?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court held that the criteria used by the Tenth Circuit did not prove that counsel's defense was ineffective. Counsel's preparation time and his inexperience did not justify a presumption of ineffectiveness. Also, the gravity of the charge, the complexity of the case, and the accessibility of witnesses were not circumstances, in themselves, that made it unlikely that Cronic received effective assistance of counsel. The Court concluded that, on remand, Cronic could make out an ineffective assistance claim only by alleging specific errors made by trial counsel.

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