Burdine v. Johnson

262 F.3d 336 (5th Cir. 2001)



A trial is unfair if the accused is denied counsel at a critical stage of his trial. When a state court finds on the basis of credible evidence that defense counsel repeatedly slept as evidence was being introduced against a defendant, that defendant has been denied counsel at a critical stage of his trial. In such circumstances, U.S. Const. amend. VI jurisprudence compels the presumption that counsel's unconsciousness prejudiced the defendant. 


Petitioner was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. His conviction was affirmed on appeal. Petitioner retained the same court-appointed counsel throughout his trial and direct appeal. Subsequent to an application for a state writ of habeas corpus, the state habeas court conducted an evidentiary hearing. Granting the writ, the habeas court found that petitioner's counsel slept during substantial portions of petitioners trial and concluded that a showing of prejudice was not required. The state court of criminal appeals concluded that petitioner was not entitled to relief because he failed to demonstrate prejudice.


Was the defendant entitled to a grant of a writ of habeas corpus due to his defense counsel having repeatedly slept through substantial portions of the trial?




The federal district court ruled that the lawyer's sleeping amounted to constructive denial of counsel. The federal court of appeals held that as petitioner did not have counsel at every critical stage of a criminal proceeding, the court was required to presume that such egregious deficiency prejudiced the fairness of the trial. Furthermore, this principle was the law at the time petitioner's conviction became final. Petitioner's unconscious counsel equated to no counsel at all.

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