3 Landmark Supreme Court Decisions That Significantly Affected Criminal Law

Law Blog

Many Supreme Court decisions have dramatically affected criminal law, often forcing prosecutors to overcome additional obstacles to prosecute a defendant or avoid a case being reversed on appeal. There are three landmark cases that have offered some level of protection to defendants.

Strickland v. Washington

The Strickland test was based on the ruling in Strickland v. Washington, which is a two-pronged test to determine ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claims during appeals. The first prong of the test involves the burden of proof that the lawyer was negligent in their defense of the client. The second prong of the test is considered the "but for" test. This means that, but for the negligence of the lawyer, the results would have been different. The Strickland test can be difficult to prove, especially since the "but for" test is rarely favorable for defendants.

Brady v. Maryland

It was common for prosecutors to only showcase evidence that was unfavorable for the defendant to win their case. Brady v. Maryland states that prosecutors cannot conceal evidence that is favorable or exculpatory for the defense. Although a Brady violation may be helpful to the defense, the burden of proof has become higher with subsequent rulings. For example, in US v. Bagley, the scope of what amounts to a Brady violation was narrowed. Not only does the evidence need to be material to the case, but it must also be exculpatory, not just favorable to the defense. A successful Brady violation typically results in an overturn of the conviction or just the punishment hearing in bifurcated trials. This affords the defense another opportunity to convince a jury of their innocence, have their charges dropped by prosecutors, or have a new punishment hearing that may result in a less severe sentence.

Batson v. Kentucky

Before Batson v. Kentucky, it was common for prosecutors to eliminate jurors based on race, ethnicity, or gender. Unfortunately, this was typically used to keep people of color off the jury. Batson v. Kentucky states that jurors cannot be struck from the panel because of race or other protected characteristics. Much like other challenges, it can be difficult to prove bias in selecting the jury. If a Batson challenge is raised on appeal, there must be race- or gender-neutral reasons given for having struck the juror from the panel.

Many Supreme Court decisions were instrumental in reducing bias and prosecutorial misconduct in criminal cases. Additionally, these same decisions also have afforded defendants more grounds for appeal during the appellate process.

To learn more, contact a criminal defense attorney.


15 January 2021