Woods v. Donald

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: March 30, 2015
  • Case #: 14-618
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Per Curiam
  • Full Text Opinion

A temporary absence by defense counsel is not ineffective assistance of counsel per se under U.S. v. Cronic when it occurs during testimony about co-defendants that defense counsel deems irrelevant to defendant’s theory of the case.

Respondent and two co-defendants were tried and convicted in state court for felony murder and armed robbery. At trial, the state introduced evidence about a series of phone calls by the defendants. Respondent’s co-defendants objected, but Respondent’s counsel did not. Respondent’s counsel was then absent for about ten minutes during testimony introducing that evidence, and repeated his lack of objection when he returned. All three defendants were convicted. Respondent exhausted state court appeals, and then sought federal habeas relief. The federal district court granted habeas relief and the Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that the absence constituted per se ineffective assistance of counsel because Respondent was “denied counsel at a critical stage of his trial,” U.S. v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 659 (1984).

The Supreme Court reverses and denies habeas relief. The Sixth Circuit erred in applying Cronic. The conduct of Respondent’s counsel failed to overcome the presumption that defense counsel’s conduct is effective assistance, and the Sixth Circuit erred when it held Michigan’s Court of Appeals misapplied Cronic contrary to the law because there is a presumption that state courts applied the law correctly when the Supreme Court is silent and state courts possess “broad discretion” over prisoners’ claims.

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