South Carolina Supreme Court provides guidance in allaying the prejudice prong in post-conviction relief cases

On February 8, 2018, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided Smalls v. State, which provides important guidance in how to analyze the prejudice prong in post-conviction relief ) “PCR” cases. Initially, the Supreme Court clarified its standard of review in PCR cases by stating, “Our standard of review in PCR cases depends on the specific issue before us. We defer to a PCR court’s findings of fact and will uphold them if there is evidence in the record to support them.”

In PCR cases based on ineffective assistance of trial counsel, Strickland v. Washington held the person challenging a conviction has the burden of showing deficient performance of trial counsel and prejudice resulting from that deficient performance. Smalls reminded, “To prove trial counsel’s performance was deficient, an applicant must show ‘counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” And, “To satisfy the prejudice prong, an applicant must demonstrate ‘there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, the result of the trial would have been different.'” Smalls then explained:

In determining whether the applicant has proven prejudice, the PCR court should consider the specific impact counsel’s error had on the outcome of the trial. In addition, the PCR court should consider the strength of the State’s case in light of all the evidence presented to the jury.  In general, the stronger the evidence presented by the State, the less likely the PCR court will find the applicant met his burden of proving prejudice. 

(internal citations omitted)

Importantly, Smalls explained:

[F]or the evidence to be “overwhelming” such that it categorically precludes a finding of prejudice . . . the evidence must include something conclusive, such as a confession, DNA evidence demonstrating guilt, or a combination of physical and corroborating evidence so strong that the Strickland standard of ‘a reasonable probability . . . the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt’ cannot possibly be met.

Sadly, post-conviction relief has been denied in many cases in South Carolina because the PCR judge concluded there was overwhelming evidence of guilt event though the Smalls test would not have been satisfied. Smalls provides an analytic framework for determining prejudice in PCR cases and, hopefully, will result in more grants of post-conviction relief.

Click this link to read Smalls v. State.