Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Monday, December 07, 2009

Cummings: No Ineffective Assistance Where Defendant Wanted No Mitigation Presented

In Cummings v. Sec. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 09-12416 (Dec. 4, 2009), the Court reversed a grant of federal habeas corpus to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of his girlfriend. The Court concluded that counsel was not ineffective for investigate and present more mitigation evidence at the sentencing phase.

The Court pointed out that the defendant “clearly, consistently, and adamantly insisted tht he wanted no mitigation evidence presented in the penalty phase.” Counsel did not “blindly follow” the client’s wishes, but moved for a competency evaluation. Counsel investigated the defendant’s prison records. In addition, to maintain the trust that existed between the client and him, counsel ultimately decided to abide by the client’s instructions regarding the mitigating evidence, specifically his wish that he did not want his family testifying. In addition, counsel was a veteran criminal defense, giving rise to a presumption of reasonable performance. Counsel could not be faulted for not putting on evidence of Cumming’s drug use, his family’s criminal history, or his antisocial personality disorder, not only because it was inconsistent with his chosen strategy, but also because it would have had a negative effect on the jury.

Finally, even if counsel’s performance were deemed deficient, Cummings failed to show that he was prejudiced because it is clear that he would not have authorized counsel to present mitigating evidence. In addition, even had the jury heard the mitigating evidence, there is no reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different, in light of the aggravating circumstances, which included Cummings’ three prior convictions for violent felonies, and the heinous circumstances of his murder.