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Ineffective assistance of counsel occurs when a defendant’s lawyer lacks the time, experience, or professional responsibility to provide adequate representation. This violates a defendant’s Fifth Amendment right to due process and their Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel and a fair trial.

IAC is sometimes referred to simply as bad lawyering. Examples include failure to investigate a defense, failure to cross-examine or object when necessary, and failure to enlist experts to challenge the prosecution’s evidence.

IAC results in an unjust and unbalanced playing field for the defendant. This can lead to a wrongful conviction because a jury is more likely to believe the prosecution’s evidence when it is not properly combated.

“Ineffective assistance of counsel is a disease that infects every part of the criminal proceeding, choking off an effective defense with the end result being a wrongful conviction,” said MTIP Legal Director Caiti Carpenter. “So, much like a disease, ineffective assistance of counsel begins with chronic symptoms that go untreated.”

Carpenter said these chronic symptoms include the overworked and sometimes undertrained attorneys who makeup the underfunded public defender system which is responsible for roughly 90% of all criminal cases.

“What this means is that most criminal defendants in Montana are assigned to attorneys who cannot provide them a competent defense,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter said it is not uncommon for public defenders to be responsible for over a hundred people’s cases at one time.

“Each one of these cases is as complex as the person that they represent,” Carpenter said. “And when you think about that, is it really any wonder that most of the applications that we get at the Montana Innocence Project and review contain some form of ineffective assistance of counsel?”

Strickland v. Washington

Strickland v. Washington was a landmark Supreme Court case in 1984 that established the legal standard for determining whether a criminal defendant’s right to counsel was violated by IAC.

According to the Strickland test, to prove ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show (1) that their trial lawyer’s performance fell below an “objective standard of reasonableness” and (2) that there is “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” 

Relevant MTIP Case:

Robert “Dave” Wilkes