Elmore v. Sinclair

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: 04-01-2015
  • Case #: 12-99003
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Smith for the Court; Circuit Judge Clifton; Concurrence by Circuit Judge Hurwitz
  • Full Text Opinion

Counsel’s strategic trial decisions must be objectively reasonable to defend against a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Clark Elmore was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1995. Elmore filed a habeas corpus petition challenging his death sentence, arguing he was denied proper due process, effective assistance of counsel, and the right to an impartial jury. The district court denied Elmore’s petition. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of Elmore’s habeas corpus petition. The panel first ruled that Elmore’s shackling in court did not violate due process because it was limited in duration, the crime committed was particularly violent, and shackling was part of the defense’s strategy in that it would show he was accepting responsibility. The panel also ruled Elmore received effective assistance of counsel. A successful claim for ineffective assistance of counsel meets the two-part Strickland v. Washington, test if: (1) counsel’s assistance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness; and (2) such deficient performance by counsel prejudiced the defense. In the context of a plea, performance is prejudicial if, but for counsel’s errors, the defendant would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial. If counsel employs “sound trial strategy,” such strategy will not be deemed deficient. Counsel’s strategic decision to rely on a showing of Elmore’s remorse and acceptance of responsibility for the crime as mitigation evidence during the penalty phase, rather than Elmore’s mental health and brain damage, did not constitute deficient performance. This was because mock trials showed jurors responded better to the remorse defense, and counsel reasonably did not want to open the door to other issues by bringing in evidence of Elmore’s mental health. Finally, the panel stated that due to the seriousness of pleading guilty, counsel has a duty to explain the advantages and disadvantages of a guilty plea to defendants. AFFIRMED.

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