In Florida v.Nixon, No. 03-931 (Dec. 13, 2004), the Supreme Court held that defense counsel for a defendant charged with a murder and subject to the death penalty did not render ineffective assistance when, without getting his client’s affirmative, explicit acceptance, he decided to concede that his client had committed murder and focused (unsuccessfully) on the sentencing phase of the trial.
The Court noted that counsel’s strategy was not the equivalent of a guilty plea, because he put the State to its proof at trial, and was able to exclude prejudicial evidence. Further, the client’s silence each time information was put to him did not render unreasonable counsel’s decision to concede guilt and to home in, instead, on the life or death penalty issue.
Counsel’s conduct was not per se ineffective under U.S. v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984) but instead should be evalutated under the standard of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), because counsel did not entirely fail to function as the client’s advocate. The Court found that the potential sentence in a capital case can affect counsel’s strategic calculus. The Court noted that challenging guilt in the face of overwhelming evidence and a heinous crime could undermine counsel’s credibility with the jury at the sentencing phase, when counsel is seeking to spare the client’s life. The Court noted that the defendant had been unresponsive to counsel’s inquiries about strategy, and declined to impose a blanket rule requiring the defendant’s consent for a concession of guilt.