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Federal Appeals Court Reverses Virginia Supreme Court on Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim

Aug. 23, 2021

In a rare move, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed the Supreme Court of Virginia’s dismissal of a prisoner’s habeas petition claiming ineffective assistance of counsel at his trial. The majority of habeas applications filed by prisoners are dismissed by the courts for a number of reasons. This reversal by the federal appeals court underscores the importance of continuing to fight your case following a conviction and denial of direct appeals.

The Wright Case

Mark O’Hara Wright was tried for robbery as a principle in the second degree in state court stemming from an incident in which he and two codefendants took sandwiches and two cases of beef from a grocery store without paying. However, it was determined at trial that Wright never spoke with the store employee from whom the codefendants snatched the beers. Therefore, the Commonwealth proposed a jury instruction at the close of evidence on grand larceny from the person as a lesser included offense to robbery without objection from Wright’s trial counsel.

The problem is that grand larceny is not a lesser included offense of robbery under Virginia law. Wright’s attorney did not object to the grand larceny jury instruction and Wright was convicted grand larceny. All his state direct appeals were denied.

Wright Successfully Sought Habeas Relief

Wright filed a state habeas corpus petition. Wright argued that his trial counsel was ineffective under the Strickland v. Washington standard for not objecting to the grand larceny jury instruction.

The Virginia Supreme Court denied Wright’s IAC claim on the ground that his trial counsel’s failure to object to the instruction was reasonable trial strategy. The court noted, based on counsel’s testimony at an evidentiary hearing, that his failure to object to the grand larceny jury instruction was advantageous to Wright. The court reasoned that the instruction gave the jury an option of an offense that is less than robbery – even if this strategy was coupled with a lack of knowledge that grand larceny is not a lesser included offense to robbery.

Wright filed a federal habeas petition in the federal district court. The federal district court denied the petition holding that the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision did not unreasonably apply Strickland. Wright appealed that decision to the Fourth Circuit, which reversed the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling.

How the Virginia Supreme Court Got It Wrong

Wright’s issue was clear cut. Grand larceny from the person is not a lesser included offense to robbery. Wright’s attorney should have known that. The Virginia Supreme Court recognized the correct legal principle in citing the Strickland standard, but it misapplied it to Wright’s case when it attributed “reasonable professional judgment” under Strickland to excuse Wright’s attorney’s failure to object to the instruction.

Under Strickland, all Wright was required to prove was that his trial counsel (1) rendered deficient performance by being unaware that grand larceny is not a lesser included offense to robbery and therefore not objecting to the erroneous jury instruction, and (2) that the outcome of Wright’s case would have been different had counsel made the objection. But Strickland also recognizes that lawyers representing criminal defendants must make strategic decisions during the course of their representation, and these decisions cannot be challenged unless they are unreasonable. If Wright’s attorney made a reasonable professional judgment not to object to the flawed jury instruction, then Wright’s IAC claim could legally be denied.

But the decision of Wright’s attorney not to object cannot be based on a reasonable professional judgment if the attorney failed to investigate whether there was a basis to object in the first place. The Fourth Circuit noted that a critical element in Strickland’s first prong (i.e., the performance prong) is an adequate investigation of relevant facts and law. The court went on to conclude that the attorney’s “failure to perform even a minimal investigation of the law cannot be said to reflect a ‘reasonable decision’ or trial strategy.” By holding otherwise, the Virginia Supreme Court misapplied Strickland.

Potential Outcomes

The federal appeals court reversed and remanded with instructions to grant Wright’s habeas petition. The case now goes back to square one. The Commonwealth has to decide whether it will indict Wright for an offense related to the crime, such as petit larceny. The Commonwealth might offer a plea deal with no jail time in order to obtain a conviction, since he already has served years in prison throughout the trial, appeal, and habeas process. Or he may apply for a bond and insist on taking his chances at trial. There is also the possibility that the Commonwealth will nolle processed the charges if its witnesses are no longer available or willing to participate in a retrial.

Takeaways From the Wright Case

Here are some important takeaways from this case:

  • Just because a person is convicted at trial and the direct appeals were denied does not mean they should quit fighting.

  • Habeas corpus is a powerful post-conviction tool for prisoners to challenge criminal convictions even if they do not have an attorney to prepare and file the petition.

  • It is important to establish a proper record in the state habeas process.

  • Although the state courts may deny habeas relief, that does not mean that their decision is the right one. The federal courts can overturn a state court decision.

  • Fighting to overturn a criminal conviction can be a long tedious process, but if successful, always worth it in the end.

Virginia Habeas Lawyer

Fighting to overturn a conviction after a trial and an appeal has been exhausted is not an easy task. You need an attorney who has experience with challenging criminal convictions on habeas corpus. Such an attorney can make sure you get the best outcome in your case. Bryan J. Jones is committed to his clients and will develop a defense strategy tailored just for you. Contact Bryan J. Jones, LLC today.