Ineffective Assistance of Appellate Counsel

Except as indicated, all indented material is copied directly from the court’s opinion. 

Decisions of the Tennessee Supreme Court

Decisions of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals

McKenzie v. State, No. E2022-01226-CCA-R3-PC, p. 5 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. June 12, 2023).

The test used to determine whether appellate counsel was constitutionally effective is the same test applied to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel at the trial level. Carpenter v. State, 126 S.W.3d 879, 886 (Tenn. 2004). To establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the petitioner must show that: 1) counsel’s performance was deficient; and 2) counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced the outcome of the proceedings. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687; see Carpenter, 126 S.W.3d at 886.

“Appellate counsel [is] not constitutionally required to raise every conceivable issue on appeal.” Carpenter, 126 S.W.3d at 887 (citing King v. State, 989 S.W.2d 319, 334 (Tenn. 1999)). Generally, appellate counsel has the discretion to determine which issues to raise on appeal and which issues to leave out. Id. Thus, courts should give considerable deference to appellate counsel’s professional judgment with regard to which issues will best serve the petitioner on appeal. Id. Appellate counsel is only afforded this deference, however, “if such choices are within the range of competence required of attorneys in criminal cases.” Id.

When a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is based on the failure of appellate counsel to raise a specific issue on appeal, the reviewing court must determine the merits of the issue. Id. “If an issue has no merit or is weak, then appellate counsel’s performance will not be deficient if counsel fails to raise it.” Id. Similarly, if the omitted issue has no merit then the petitioner suffers no prejudice from counsel’s decision not to raise it. Id. If the issue omitted is without merit, the petitioner cannot succeed in his ineffective assistance claim. Id. The petitioner bears the burden of establishing that the omitted issue had merit. Id. at 888.

Keel v. State, No. M2022-00089-CCA-R3-PC, p. 13-15 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. 2023). 

Post conviction relief “shall be granted when the conviction or sentence is void or voidable because of the abridgment of any right guaranteed by the Constitution of Tennessee or the Constitution of the United States.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-103. The petitioner bears the burden of proving factual allegations by clear and convincing evidence. Id. § 40-30-110(f). When an evidentiary hearing is held in the post-conviction setting, the findings of fact made by the court are conclusive on appeal unless the evidence preponderates against them. See Wiley v. State, 183 S.W.3d 317, 325 (Tenn. 2006). When reviewing factual issues, the appellate court will not reweigh the evidence and will instead defer to the post-conviction court’s findings as to the credibility of witnesses or the weight of their testimony. Id. However, review of a post-conviction court’s application of the law to the facts of the case is de novo, with no presumption of correctness. See Ruff v. State, 978 S.W.2d 95, 96 (Tenn. 1998). The issue of ineffective assistance of counsel, which presents mixed questions of fact and law, is reviewed de novo, with a presumption of correctness given only to the post-conviction court’s findings of fact. See Dellinger v. State, 279 S.W.3d 282, 294 (Tenn. 2009).

To show ineffective assistance of counsel, the petitioner has the burden to show both that trial counsel’s performance was deficient and that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced the outcome of the proceeding. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). The Strickland standard is a two-prong test:

First, the defendant must show that counsel’s performance was deficient. This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the “counsel” guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. This requires showing that counsel’s errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.

466 U.S. at 687.

The deficient performance prong of the test is satisfied by showing that “counsel’s acts or omissions were so serious as to fall below an objective standard of reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.” Goad, 938 S.W.2d at 369 (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688; Baxter v. Rose, 523 S.W.2d 930, 936 (Tenn. 1975)). The reviewing court must indulge a strong presumption that the conduct of counsel falls within the range of reasonable professional assistance, see Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690, and may not second- guess the tactical and strategic choices made by trial counsel unless those choices were uninformed because of inadequate preparation. See Hellard v. State, 629 S.W.2d 4, 9 (Tenn. 1982). We will not second-guess a reasonable trial strategy, and we will not grant relief based on a sound, yet ultimately unsuccessful, tactical decision. Granderson v. State, 197 S.W.3d 782, 790 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2006).

The prejudice prong of the test is satisfied by showing a reasonable probability, i.e., a “probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome,” that “but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694.

Courts need not approach the Strickland test in a specific order or even “address both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an insufficient showing on one.” 466 U.S. at 697; see Goad, 938 S.W.2d at 370 (stating that “failure to prove either deficiency or prejudice provides a sufficient basis to deny relief on the ineffective assistance claim”).

The test used to determine whether appellate counsel was constitutionally effective is the same test applied to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel at the trial level. Carpenter v. State, 126 S.W.3d 879, 886 (Tenn. 2004). “The determination of which issues to raise on appeal is generally within appellate counsel’s sound discretion.” Id. at 887 (citations omitted). “Deference to counsel’s tactical choices, however, applies only if such choices are within the range of competence required of attorneys in criminal cases.” Id. (citing Campbell v. State, 904 S.W.2d 594, 597 (Tenn. 1995)). In determining whether trial counsel was ineffective for not raising an issue on appeal, the reviewing court examines the issue to determine its merits. As our supreme court explained:

If a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is based on the failure to raise a particular issue, as in this case, then the reviewing court must determine the merits of the issue. Obviously, if an issue has no merit or is weak, then appellate counsel’s performance will not be deficient if counsel fails to raise it. Likewise, unless the omitted issue has some merit, the petitioner suffers no prejudice from appellate counsel’s failure to raise the issue on appeal. When an omitted issue is without merit, the petitioner cannot prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

Id. at 888-89 (citations omitted). In conducting an evaluation of the merits of an omitted issue, our supreme court adopted the following non-exhaustive list of factors to be considered:

1) Were the omitted issues “significant and obvious”?

2) Was there arguably contrary authority on the omitted issues?

3) Were the omitted issues clearly stronger than those presented?

4) Were the omitted issues objected to at trial?

5) Were the trial court’s rulings subject to deference on appeal?

6) Did appellate counsel testify in a collateral proceeding as to his appeal strategy and, if so, were the justifications reasonable?

7) What was appellate counsel’s level of experience and expertise?

8) Did the petitioner and appellate counsel meet and go over possible issues?
9) Is there evidence that counsel reviewed all the facts?

10) Were the omitted issues dealt with in other assignments of error?

Id. at 888 (quoting Maples v. Coyle, 171 F. 3d 408, 427-28 (6th Cir. 1999)).

Trammell v. State, No. W2022-00042-CCA-R3-PC, p. 4-6 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Feb. 8, 2023). 

The petitioner bears the burden of proving his post-conviction factual allegations by clear and convincing evidence. Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-110(f). The findings of fact established at a post-conviction evidentiary hearing are conclusive on appeal unless the evidence preponderates against them. Tidwell v. State, 922 S.W.2d 497, 500 (Tenn. 1996). This Court will not reweigh or reevaluate evidence of purely factual issues. Henley v. State, 960 S.W.2d 572, 578 (Tenn. 1997). However, appellate review of a trial court’s application of the law to the facts is de novo, with no presumption of correctness. See Ruff v. State, 978 S.W.2d 95, 96 (Tenn. 1998). The issue of ineffective assistance of counsel presents mixed questions of fact and law. Fields v. State, 40 S.W.3d 450, 458 (Tenn. 2001). Thus, this Court reviews the petitioner’s post-conviction allegations de novo, affording a presumption of correctness only to the post-conviction court’s findings of fact. Id.; Burns v. State, 6 S.W.3d 453, 461 (Tenn. 1999).

To establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the petitioner must show both that counsel’s performance was deficient and that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced the outcome of the proceedings. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984); State v. Taylor, 968 S.W.2d 900, 905 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1997) (noting the standard for determining ineffective assistance of counsel applied in federal cases is also applied in Tennessee). The Strickland standard is a two-prong test:

First, the defendant must show that counsel’s performance was deficient. This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the “counsel” guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. This requires showing that counsel’s errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.

466 U.S. at 687. In order for a post-conviction petitioner to succeed, both prongs of the Strickland test must be satisfied. Id. Thus, courts are not required to even “address both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an insufficient showing on one.” Id.; see also Goad v. State, 938 S.W.2d 363, 370 (Tenn. 1996) (stating that “a failure to prove either deficiency or prejudice provides a sufficient basis to deny relief on the ineffective assistance claim.”).

A petitioner proves a deficiency by showing “counsel’s acts or omissions were so serious as to fall below an objective standard of reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.” Goad, 938 S.W.2d at 369 (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688; Baxter v. Rose, 523 S.W.2d 930, 936 (Tenn. 1975)). The prejudice prong of the Strickland test is satisfied when the petitioner shows there is a reasonable probability, or “a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome,” that “but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. However, “[b]ecause of the difficulties inherent in making the evaluation, a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel’s conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action ‘might be considered sound trial strategy.’” Id. at 689 (quoting Michel v. Louisiana, 350 U.S. 91, 101 (1955)).

The test used to determine whether appellate counsel was constitutionally effective is the same test applied to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel at the trial level. Carpenter v. State, 126 S.W.3d 879, 886 (Tenn. 2004). To establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the petitioner must show that: 1) counsel’s performance was deficient; and 2) counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced the outcome of the proceedings. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687; see Carpenter, 126 S.W.3d at 886.

“Appellate counsel is not constitutionally required to raise every conceivable issue on appeal.” Carpenter, 126 S.W.3d at 887 (citing King v. State, 989 S.W.2d 319, 334 (Tenn. 1999)). Generally, appellate counsel has the discretion to determine which issues to raise on appeal and which issues to leave out. Id. Thus, courts should give considerable deference to appellate counsel’s professional judgment with regard to which issues will best serve the petitioner on appeal. Id. Appellate counsel is only afforded this deference, however, “if such choices are within the range of competence required of attorneys in criminal cases.” Id.

When a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is based on the failure of appellate counsel to raise a specific issue on appeal, the reviewing court must determine the merits of the issue. Id. “If an issue has no merit or is weak, then appellate counsel’s performance will not be deficient if counsel fails to raise it.” Id. Similarly, if the omitted issue has no merit then the petitioner suffers no prejudice from counsel’s decision not to raise it. Id. If the issue omitted is without merit, the petitioner cannot succeed in his ineffective assistance claim. Id.

Ruby-Ruiz v. State, No. M2022-00442-CCA-R3-PC, p. 13-14 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Jan. 31, 2023). 

To establish a post-conviction claim of the ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment, a petitioner has the burden of proving that (1) counsel’s performance was deficient and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984); see Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506 U.S. 364, 368-72 (1993); Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52 (1985). The Tennessee Supreme Court has applied the Strickland standard to an accused’s right to counsel under article I, section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution. See State v. Melson, 772 S.W.2d 417, 419 n.2 (Tenn. 1989).

A petitioner must satisfy both prongs of the Strickland test in order to prevail in an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Henley, 960 S.W.2d at 580. “[F]ailure to prove either deficiency or prejudice provides a sufficient basis to deny relief on the ineffective assistance claim.” Goad v. State, 938 S.W.2d 363, 370 (Tenn. 1996). To establish the deficient performance prong, a petitioner must show that “the advice given, or the services rendered . . . , are [not] within the range of competence demanded of attorneys in criminal cases.” Baxter v. Rose, 523 S.W.2d 930, 936 (Tenn. 1975); see Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690. The post-conviction court must determine if these acts or omissions, viewed in light of all of the circumstances, fell “outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690. A petitioner “is not entitled to the benefit of hindsight, may not second-guess a reasonably based trial strategy by his counsel, and cannot criticize a sound, but unsuccessful, tactical decision.” Adkins v. State, 911 S.W.2d 334, 347 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1994); see Pylant v. State, 263 S.W.3d 854, 874 (Tenn. 2008). This deference, however, only applies “if the choices are informed . . . based upon adequate preparation.” Cooper v. State, 847 S.W.2d 521, 528 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1992). To establish the prejudice prong, a petitioner must show that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. “A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Id.

Turner v. State, No. W2021-00531-CCA-R3-PC, p. 20 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Aug. 19, 2022).

To establish ineffective assistance of counsel on appeal, a petitioner must demonstrate that appellate counsel was deficient in failing to adequately pursue or preserve a particular issue on appeal and that, absent appellate counsel’s deficient performance, there was a reasonable probability that the issue “would have affected the result of the appeal.” Campbell v. State, 904 S.W.2d 594, 597 (Tenn. 1995). “Appellate counsel are not constitutionally required to raise every conceivable issue on appeal.” Carpenter v. State, 126 S.W.3d 879, 887 (Tenn. 2004). “Generally, the determination of which issues to present on appeal is a matter which addresses itself to the professional judgment and sound discretion of appellate counsel.” Campbell, 904 S.W.2d at 597. A reviewing court gives “considerable deference” to counsel’s judgment regarding which issues to raise on appeal, so long as the choices are within the “range of competence required of attorneys in criminal cases.” Carpenter, 126 S.W.3d at 887. “‘Generally, only when ignored issues are clearly stronger than those presented, will the presumption of effective assistance of counsel be overcome,’” although the Tennessee Supreme Court has declined to hold that this is the “only way to show” deficiency. Id. at 888 (quoting Gray v. Greer, 800 F.2d 644, 646 (7th Cir. 1986)). When a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is premised on the failure to preserve an issue on appeal, the reviewing court should determine the merits of the omitted issue. Carpenter, 126 S.W.3d at 888. “Obviously, if an issue has no merit or is weak, then appellate counsel’s performance will not be deficient if counsel fails to raise it.” Id. The strength of the omitted issue also has bearing on whether failure to raise the issue resulted in prejudice. Id.

Porter v. State, No. E2021-00915-CCA-R3-PC, p. 13-15 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. Aug. 18, 2022). 

The petitioner bears the burden of proving his post-conviction factual allegations by clear and convincing evidence. Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-110(f). The findings of fact established at a post-conviction evidentiary hearing are conclusive on appeal unless the evidence preponderates against them. Tidwell v. State, 922 S.W.2d 497, 500 (Tenn. 1996). This Court will not reweigh or reevaluate evidence of purely factual issues. Henley v. State, 960 S.W.2d 572, 578 (Tenn. 1997). However, appellate review of a trial court’s application of the law to the facts is de novo, with no presumption of correctness. See Ruff v. State, 978 S.W.2d 95, 96 (Tenn. 1998). The issue of ineffective assistance of counsel presents mixed questions of fact and law. Fields v. State, 40 S.W.3d 450, 458 (Tenn. 2001). Thus, this Court reviews the petitioner’s post-conviction allegations de novo, affording a presumption of correctness only to the post-conviction court’s findings of fact. Id.; Burns v. State, 6 S.W.3d 453, 461 (Tenn. 1999).

To establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the petitioner must show both that counsel’s performance was deficient and that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced the outcome of the proceedings. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984); State v. Taylor, 968 S.W.2d 900, 905 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1997) (noting the standard for determining ineffective assistance of counsel applied in federal cases is also applied in Tennessee). The Strickland standard is a two-prong test:

First, the defendant must show that counsel’s performance was deficient. This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the “counsel” guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. This requires showing that counsel’s errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.

466 U.S. at 687. In order for a post-conviction petitioner to succeed, both prongs of the Strickland test must be satisfied. Id. Thus, courts are not required to even “address both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an insufficient showing on one.” Id.; see also Goad v. State, 938 S.W.2d 363, 370 (Tenn. 1996) (stating that “a failure to prove either deficiency or prejudice provides a sufficient basis to deny relief on the ineffective assistance claim.”).

A petitioner proves a deficiency by showing “counsel’s acts or omissions were so serious as to fall below an objective standard of reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.” Goad, 938 S.W.2d at 369 (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688; Baxter v. Rose, 523 S.W.2d 930, 936 (Tenn. 1975)). The prejudice prong of the Strickland test is satisfied when the petitioner shows there is a reasonable probability, or “a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome,” that “but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. However, “[b]ecause of the difficulties inherent in making the evaluation, a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel’s conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action ‘might be considered sound trial strategy.’” Id. at 689 (quoting Michel v. Louisiana, 350 U.S. 91, 101 (1955)).

The test used to determine whether appellate counsel was constitutionally effective is the same test applied to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel at the trial level. Carpenter v. State, 126 S.W.3d 879, 886 (Tenn. 2004). To establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the petitioner must show that: 1) counsel’s performance was deficient; and 2) counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced the outcome of the proceedings. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687; see Carpenter, 126 S.W.3d at 886.

“Appellate counsel is not constitutionally required to raise every conceivable issue on appeal.” Carpenter, 126 S.W.3d at 887 (citing King v. State, 989 S.W.2d 319, 334 (Tenn. 1999)). Generally, appellate counsel has the discretion to determine which issues to raise on appeal and which issues to leave out. Id. Thus, courts should give considerable deference to appellate counsel’s professional judgment with regard to which issues will best serve the petitioner on appeal. Id. Appellate counsel is only afforded this deference, however, “if such choices are within the range of competence required of attorneys in criminal cases.” Id.

When a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is based on the failure of appellate counsel to raise a specific issue on appeal, the reviewing court must determine the merits of the issue. Id. “If an issue has no merit or is weak, then appellate counsel’s performance will not be deficient if counsel fails to raise it.” Id. Similarly, if the omitted issue has no merit then the petitioner suffers no prejudice from counsel’s decision not to raise it. Id. If the issue omitted is without merit, the petitioner cannot succeed in his ineffective assistance claim. Id.

Byrd v. State of Tennessee, No. E2021-00562-CCA-R3-PC , p. 8 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. June 1, 2022).

A claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is a mixed question of law and fact. See State v. Burns, 6 S.W.3d 453, 461 (Tenn. 1999). We will review the post-conviction court’s findings of fact de novo with a presumption that those findings are correct. See Fields, 40 S.W.3d at 458. However, we will review the post-conviction court’s conclusions of law purely de novo. Id.

Gilbert v. State of Tennessee, No. E2021-00737-CCA-R3-PC, p. 6-7 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. May 13, 2022).

In order to prevail on a petition for post-conviction relief, a petitioner must prove all factual allegations by clear and convincing evidence. Jaco v. State, 120 S.W.3d 828, 830 (Tenn. 2003). Post-conviction relief cases often present mixed questions of law and fact. See Fields v. State, 40 S.W.3d 450, 458 (Tenn. 2001). Appellate courts are bound by the post-conviction court’s factual findings unless the evidence preponderates against such findings. Kendrick v. State, 454 S.W.3d 450, 457 (Tenn. 2015). When reviewing the postconviction court’s factual findings, this court does not reweigh the evidence or substitute its own inferences for those drawn by the post-conviction court. Id.; Fields, 40 S.W.3d at 456 (citing Henley v. State, 960 S.W.2d 572, 578 (Tenn. 1997)). Additionally, “questions concerning the credibility of the witnesses, the weight and value to be given their testimony, and the factual issues raised by the evidence are to be resolved by the [postconviction court].” Fields, 40 S.W.3d at 456 (citing Henley, 960 S.W.2d at 579); see also Kendrick, 454 S.W.3d at 457. The post-conviction court’s conclusions of law and application of the law to factual findings are reviewed de novo with no presumption of correctness. Kendrick, 454 S.W.3d at 457.

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