Collins v. Secretary of Pa. Dep't of Corr., PICS Case No. 14-0195 (3d Cir. Jan. 31, 2014) Jordan, J. (42 pages).

U.S. COURTS OF APPEAL-THIRD CIRCUIT

The Legal Intelligencer

CRIMINAL LAW

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel • Habeas Corpus • Cumulative Error

Collins v. Secretary of Pa. Dep't of Corr., PICS Case No. 14-0195 (3d Cir. Jan. 31, 2014) Jordan, J. (42 pages).

Given uncontroverted evidence, state court determination that petitioner failed to show he suffered prejudice was not an unreasonable application of Strickland v. Washington. Denial of habeas petition affirmed.

Collins, convicted for murder, sought habeas relief, arguing that trial counsel, who interviewed no witnesses and hired no experts, was ineffective for failure to prepare and investigate his case.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the PCRA court denied Collins' ineffectiveness claims, finding that counsel had a "reasonable strategy" for not retaining an expert, and that no prejudice resulted from his failure to do so.

Collins petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied the petition, finding that the supreme court's denial of Collins' ineffectiveness claim was not an unreasonable application of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 688 (1984), and that there was "no reasonable probability of an acquittal" even had counsel consulted an expert. The district court certified two claims for appeal: whether Collins was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel because his attorney inadequately prepared for trial and conducted no investigation; and whether he had a claim of cumulative prejudice from various errors allegedly committed at trial. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed.

Habeas relief was not available because the state court adjudicated the issues and reasonably applied federal law. Under Strickland, petitioner was required to establish he was prejudiced by counsel's ineffectiveness, i.e., there was a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's error, the result of the proceedings would have been different. Even if counsel had been more diligent, the evidence against Collins was overwhelming with no reasonable probability that a different outcome would result. Therefore, state court did not unreasonably apply federal law when it found that counsel's failures did not prejudice Collins.

Furthermore, a cumulative error argument is a standalone claim under which a petitioner may assert that the cumulative effect of errors at trial so undermined the verdict as to constitute a denial of his constitutional right to due process, a claim that is subject to exhaustion and procedural default (first impression).