Military ineffective assistance of counsel

In the context of a court-martial, ineffective assistance of counsel refers to a claim by a military defendant that their defense counsel provided them with legal representation that fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that this deficient representation prejudiced the outcome of their case.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), military defendants have the right to be represented by counsel at trial. If a defendant believes that their defense counsel provided them with ineffective assistance, they can raise this claim on appeal. The standard for evaluating claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in a court-martial is the two-part test established in Strickland v. Washington, a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984.

Under the Strickland test, the defendant must show that their counsel’s performance was deficient and that this deficient performance prejudiced the outcome of the trial. Deficient performance means that the attorney’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and prejudice means that there is a reasonable probability that, but for the deficient performance, the outcome of the trial would have been different.

If a military defendant successfully raises a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the remedy will depend on the specific circumstances of the case. The remedy could include a new trial, a reduction in sentence, or some other form of relief.

The appeals court will review claims of IAC de novo. United States v. Gooch, 69 M.J. 353, 362 (C.A.A.F. 2011) (To establish that ineffective assistance of counsel occurred, an appellant must prove both that the defense counsel’s performance was deficient and that the deficiency caused prejudice. United States v. Captain, 75 M.J. 99, 103 (C.A.A.F. 2016). You should be aware that appellate courts strongly presume the counsel gave reasonable professional assistance. Also, you must show “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s [deficient performance] the result of the proceeding would have been different.” See United States v. Cueto, 82 M.J. 323, 327 (C.A.A.F. 2022).

Your military appellate defense counsel can argue the cumulative effect of various errors when those errors aren’t necessarily significant. Also, in Cueto, the court said that

Perhaps in a rare case an attorney’s overall performance could be deficient even though the attorney did not make specific errors. See, e.g., People v. Raosto, 50 A.D.3d 508, 509, 856 N.Y.S.2d 86 (N.Y. App. Div. 2008) (holding that a defense counsel’s overall performance was deficient where the defense counsel “displayed general carelessness and inattention throughout the trial,” “appeared to be confused,” and was generally unsuccessful in cross-examining witnesses). But such cases usually would arise only when “the defendant can point to a long series of questionable omissions by counsel” that “were not simply the product of human fallibility, but the result of a lack of conscientious effort.” Wayne R. LaFave et al., Criminal Procedure § 11.10(c) (4th ed. 2015).

Ineffectiveness claims can relate to pretrial preparations and advice on guilty plea negotiations, for action or inaction during trial, and for actions or inactions during the sentencing case.

United States v. Scott United States v. Scott, 2018 CCA LEXIS 522 (A.C.C.A., Oct. 30, 2018) aff’d 61 M.J. 79 (C.A.A.F. 2021), is an example of alleged military defense counsel failure during sentencing. But the courts decided the accused was not prejudiced based on the conduct of which convicted and other mitigating evidence in the record.

It is important to note that a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is a complex legal issue. Anyone facing a court-martial should consult with an experienced military defense attorney to discuss their legal options.

Contact Information