Poor Legal Aid Is Held Basis for New Trial

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a criminal defendant is entitled to a new trial if his lawyer was “grossly ineffective.”

In a unanimous ruling, the justices told a federal court that it may proceed with a rehearing of the case against an accused New Jersey rapist whose attorney failed to bar illegally obtained evidence from his original trial.

“The right to counsel is a fundamental right of criminal defendants,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote for the court. Those who can show that “they have been denied a fair trial by the gross incompetence of their attorneys . . . will be entitled to a retrial without the challenged evidence.”

In two other cases involving court procedures, the justices ruled against the defendants: a Virginia killer, who challenged a psychiatrist’s testimony against him; and a New York killer, who was convicted in part on testimony of a police informant placed in his cell.


The New Jersey defendant, Neil Morrison, was convicted in 1977 of taking a 15-year old female employee to his apartment and raping her. After reporting the crime, the girl went with a policewoman to Morrison’s apartment and a bed sheet was confiscated.

Morrison’s lawyer did not inquire about the sheet, which was obtained without a search warrant, and did not try to bar it from being used as evidence until the trial began, which was too late under state law. Based on the girl’s testimony and hairs found on the sheet, Morrison was convicted.

With a new lawyer, Morrison appealed to the federal courts. There, he won rulings concluding both that the evidence was illegal and that his first attorney was incompetent.

The attorneys general from New Jersey and 33 other states, including California, appealed to the high court contending that defendants should not be allowed to circumvent state courts when they are dissatisfied with the result.


The justices granted Morrison a new hearing on whether he could have been convicted without the confiscated bed sheet (Kimmelman vs. Morrison, 84-1661).

In the Virginia case, the justices upheld the death penalty for Michael M. Smith, an accused killer who was called a threat to society by a psychiatrist testifying at his sentencing hearing. The psychiatrist had initially interviewed Smith while acting as an expert witness for the defense.

However, at the sentencing hearing he testified for the prosecution. During the course of his state court appeals, Smith’s attorney failed to contest the psychiatrist’s right to testify. He did, however, raise the issue in his federal appeal, but the district and appellate courts refused to overturn the state court verdict.

The high court, which upheld this result on a 5-4 vote, cited two reasons for its ruling: The lawyer’s mistake in not raising the appeal sooner “was not an error of such magnitude that it rendered his performance constitutionally deficient,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said for the court. Further, “even assuming that, as a legal matter, the psychiatrist’s testimony should not have been presented to the jury, its admission did not pervert the jury’s deliberation concerning the ultimate question of whether (Smith) constituted a continuing threat to society” (Smith vs. Murray, 85-5487).


In the New York case, the justices reinstated a 20-year prison term for a man who killed a Bronx cab driver. His 1972 trial included incriminating statements by a police informer who was placed in his cell.

On a 6-3 vote, the high court upheld the conviction because the informant had not gone “beyond mere listening” and because the other evidence against the defendant was “nearly overwhelming” (Kuhlmann vs. Wilson, 84-1479).