(CN) – A defense lawyer is not required to pursue a flimsy insanity defense, simply because is it the only remaining option and the defense has nothing to lose, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
Justice Thomas led a unanimous court in rejecting Alexandre Mirzayance’s assertion that his counsel was ineffective for recommending the withdrawal of an insanity plea in connection with the murder of his 19-year-old cousin, Melanie Ookhtens, in her California home in 1995.
Mirzayance admitted that he stabbed Ookhtens nine times with a hunting knife before shooting her four times.
Mirzayance presented medical testimony to support the theory that he was insane at the time of the killing in order. He was trying to show he was incapable of the premeditation needed to commit first-degree murder. He was unable to convince the jury.
Before the not guilty by reason of insanity phase of the trial began, counsel advised Mirzayance not to pursue it because he had little chance of success.
Counsel felt that since the trial jury had rejected the testimony of his client’s insanity once, that a similar result was likely in the trial’s second phase. Also, Mirzayance’s parents decided not testify on his behalf.
The California Court of Appeals rejected Mirzayance’s plea for post-conviction relief, but the 9th Circuit affirmed the federal district court’s ruling that counsel should have proceeded since the defendant had nothing to lose.
The San Francisco-based federal appeals court ruled that competent counsel would have tried to persuade the defendants’ parents to testify in support of his insanity plea, and that there was a reasonable probability that a jury would have found him insane.”
On appeal, Thomas ruled that Mirzayance did not prove his counsel was ineffective.
“It was not unreasonable for the state court to conclude that counsel’s performance was not deficient when he counseled Mirzayance to abandon a claim that stood almost no chance of success,” Thomas wrote.
“The 9th Circuit’s insistence that counsel was required to assert the only defense available, even one almost certain to lose, is not supported by any prevailing professional norms of which the court is aware,” Thomas added.
As a result of the ruling, Mirzayance will not receive a new trial.