Ineffective assistance of counsel

Hardwick v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 803 F.3d 541 (11th Cir. 2015)

Failure of defense counsel to present mitigation evidence regarding defendant’s history of mental illness in sentencing phase of murder trial was prejudicial

Background: After affirmance of his state murder conviction and death sentence and denial of state post-conviction relief, John Gary Hardwick, Jr. petitioned for federal habeas relief. Hardwick based his claim of ineffective assistance on his counsel’s failure to conduct a professionally reasonable mitigation investigation regarding his mental health during the penalty phase, and that it was reasonably probable that he would not have been sentenced to death but for this deficient performance. After an initial denial followed by remand and an evidentiary hearing, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida determined that Hardwick’s counsel had been ineffective at the penalty phase of his trial and set aside his capital sentence.

Holdings: The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that Hardwick was entitled to a writ of habeas corpus setting aside his capital sentence and requiring the imposition of a life sentence, unless the State provided him with a new penalty phase. Although trial counsel’s decision not to present mitigating evidence at the penalty phase of a capital trial is not per se ineffective assistance, the strategic choice not to present mitigating evidence must be objectively reasonable. Here, as in Saranchak, there were several “red flags” that should have signaled to counsel the need to conduct a life-history investigation, to interview family members, and provide the information to a mental health expert.

Found in Found in DMHL Volume 34, Issue 4