Ineffective assistance of counsel is a claim that a criminal defendant may assert when their defense attorney’s inadequate representation constitutes a violation of their Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
However, not all cases concerning an attorney’s unsatisfactory performance entitle a defendant to relief. The 1984 landmark Supreme Court case of Strickland v. Washington outlined the two requirements for proving ineffective assistance of counsel: (1) counsel’s performance must be deficient under the circumstances, and (2) but for the counsel’s deficient performance, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the case would have been different.
Since inadequate representation creates unfair disadvantages to defendants, and often wrongful convictions, successful ineffective assistance of counsel claims may allow for an overturned conviction, vacated sentence or even a new trial.
On August 18th, 2021, the Supreme Court of New Jersey decided in State v. Hannah, that the Defendant’s poor legal representation in connection to his felony murder trial amounted to a violation of his constitutional right to counsel. The Court came to this conclusion based on the conduct of defense counsel and the crucial missteps that allowed potentially exculpatory evidence to go unheard by the jury.
The case against this Defendant stems from his connection to heroin dealers that allegedly murdered two of their New York suppliers in Jersey City. Although the Defendant maintained his innocence, the heroin dealers had tried to frame him for the murders with inconsistent statements made to the police and testimony that was contradictory with forensic evidence.
During trial, however, potentially exculpatory evidence never made its way to the jury. Among the evidence withheld from the jury were (1) a police report that revealed a pager number listed to Defendant’s name was actually answered by one of the heroin dealers, (2) testimony from that same heroin dealer’s mother in which she testified hearing her son talk about framing the Defendant for the murder, splitting drug money with the other heroin dealer and being in possession of heroin taken from the dead suppliers from New York.
The Court noted that due a series of fatal trial errors by the Defendant’s various counsel, critical evidence that could have altered the outcome of the verdict was never heard by the jury. For instance, defense counsel could have argued for the admissibility of the testimony of the heroin dealer’s mother but ultimately failed to do so. Also, the Court pointed out that although it was unlikely that the police report was withheld from the defense, the testimony from the Defendant’s various counsel revealed that the information contained within the report would have been helpful to the defense and it may have been overlooked.
The Court concluded that since the Defendant’s counsel’s representation fell below the objective standard of reasonableness, and because there was a significant probability that the outcome of the verdict would have been different absent the counsel’s deficiencies, the Defendant’s conviction was vacated and the matter was remanded for a new trial.
Thus, when faced with criminal charges, the importance of effective and competent counsel could mean the difference between justice and wrongful conviction.
If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Jersey City or the surrounding Hudson county area, do not hesitate to contact our office for a free and confidential consultation.