In a case known as Strickland v. Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court drastically narrowed the range of challenges to the effectiveness and competence of counsel at criminal trials. The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides a right in all criminal cases to assistance of counsel. The Sixth Amendment notwithstanding, are people facing imprisonment and severe punishments actually receiving effective and competent assistance of counsel? You decide. If your lawyer actually went to sleep during your trial, would you think he or she was effective? This is what an appeals court ruled in a case called People v. Tippins, 1991.
Although defense counsel slept boring portions of the trial, the opinion read, counsel provided defendant meaningful representation. What about if your lawyer was high on drugs, during the trial? When an appellate court was faced with just such an instance in the case known as People vs. Badia, 1990, this was their learned analysis. “Proof of a defense counsel’s use of narcotics during a trial does not amount to a per se violation of constitutional right to effective counsel.” Note, in this case, counsel admitted using heroin and cocaine throughout the trial.
And in the case, Commonwealth v. Africa, specifically involving moved political prisoner, Mike Africa, the trial lawyer later admitted to daily cocaine and marijuana use. But that issue wasn’t raised on appeal. It would seem that a fairly competent lawyer, having researched the evidence, would pay some attention to how his client was dressed at trial. Not so, said a court of appeals in a case known as People v. Murphy, 1983. “Counsel’s seeming indifference to defendant’s attire, though defendant was wearing the same sweatshirt and footwear in court that he wore on the day of the crime, did not constitute ineffective assistance.”
In all of these real cases, the attorneys involved were deemed competent in their representations and their clients’ convictions were upheld. Under these cases, counsel means little more than presence by a lawyer at trial. For even if he is asleep, even if he or she is a drug addict, indeed, high at the trial itself, it ain’t no thing. Counsel, under Strickland’s tortured logic, is presumed effective. This is just a few of the many cases from across the United States that show the poverty of the Sixth Amendment.
For more information, you can read “Effective Assistance Isn’t Much,” an article by Roger Parloff in the January-February issue of the American Lawyer. Increasingly, the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are merely filler for dusty history books, which have no application in real life, as the courts have shown repeatedly.
From death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal. For more information about my case, racism, and the death penalty, and what you can do, contact Equal Justice USA at 301-699-0042.