Right to counsel guarantees ‘reasonable competence’ and not ‘perfect advocacy’

Supreme Court of United States– Reversing the judgment of the Court of Appeals for Maryland that the defense attorney of the respondent were unconstitutionally ineffective, the Court granting the writ of certiorari held that the defense attorney of the respondent did not provide deficient performance when they failed to uncover the 1991 report and also failed to use the report’s methodological flaw against the FBI agent on cross-examination. The Court also observed that the Court of Appeals had offered no support for its conclusion that the respondent’s defense attorneys were constitutionally required to predict the demise of Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis (CBLA). Instead, the court indulged in the “natural tendency to speculate as to whether a different trial strategy might have been more successful.”

In the instant case the respondent had killed his 22-year-old mistress in the head at pointblank range. During the respondent’s trial, commencing in 1995, an FBI Agent testified as the State’s expert on CBLA. The respondent in his post conviction relief had also claimed that his defense attorneys were ineffective for failing to question the legitimacy of CBLA. Consequently, Court of Appeals had held that counsel’s failure to unearth the report, to identify one of its findings as “at odds with the scientific method,” and to use this methodological flaw to cast doubt on CBLA during counsel’s cross-examination of the agent, “fell short of prevailing professional norms.”

While giving reasons this Court stated that the time when the trial took place was the era of card catalogues, not a worldwide web and it would have been really difficult for the attorney to find the compilation. The Court further observed, given the uncontroversial nature of CBLA at the time of respondent’s trial, the effect of the judgment of the court was to demand that the attorneys should go “looking for a needle in a haystack,” even when they have “reason to doubt there is any needle there”, which was far more than reasonable competency which the right to counsel guarantees. [Maryland v. James Kulbicki, 2015 SCC OnLine US SC 79, decided on 5.10.2015]

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