Indigent defendants who are represented by appointed lawyers and defendants who can afford to hire their own attorneys are both entitled to adequate representation. But “adequate representation” does not mean perfect representation. However, an incompetent or negligent lawyer can so poorly represent a client that the court is justified in throwing out a guilty verdict based on the attorney’s incompetence.
If a defendant’s lawyer is ineffective at trial and on direct appeal, the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial has been violated. In analyzing claims that a defendant’s lawyer was ineffective, the principal goal is to determine whether the lawyer’s conduct so undermined the functioning of the judicial process that the trial cannot be relied upon as having produced a just result. Proving this requires two steps:
- The defendant must show that his own lawyer’s job performance was deficient. The defendant must prove that his counsel made errors so serious that the lawyer did not function as the counsel guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.
- The defendant must show that the deficient performance unfairly prejudiced the defense. The defendant must show that his lawyer’s errors were so serious as to wholly deprive the defendant of a fair trial.
Unless a defendant proves both steps, the conviction or sentence cannot be said to result from a breakdown in the judicial process such that the result is unreliable. When courts review a lawyer’s advocacy of a defendant, they are deferential. Courts are bound by a strong presumption that any given lawyer’s conduct falls within the range of reasonable professional assistance.