At the Edge of Objectivity: The Missouri Court of Appeals' Deference to a Seemingly Subjective Assessment of Prejudice Under Strickland.

AuthorIsbell, Bradley J.

Dawson v. State, No. WD 82441, 2020 WL 3966847 (Mo. App. W.D. July 14, 2020), reh'g and/or transfer denied (Aug. 27, 2020)


    Strickland v. Washington is often heralded as one of the most important criminal procedure cases of the last century. (1) The opinion created a two-prong framework for analyzing a post-conviction relief claim of ineffective assistance of counsel: performance and prejudice. (2) The focus of this Note is the prejudice prong, specifically when the post-conviction court is the same court that presided over a defendant's trial or sentencing.

    Imagine an inmate's post-conviction counsel argues that the defendant received ineffective assistance before the trial court because trial counsel failed to present readily available, mitigating evidence. (3) Under Strickland's second prong, post-conviction counsel must argue that trial counsel's failure caused prejudice: a reasonable probability exists that the unpresented evidence would have resulted in a shorter sentence. (4) How should the post-conviction court assess whether the evidence would have resulted in a shorter sentence? In the event that the post-conviction court is the same as the sentencing court, should the court simply ask a subjective question: is there a reasonable probability that it would have imposed a shorter sentence? Conversely, should the post-conviction court divorce its inquiry from its role at sentencing and engage in an objective inquiry: is there a reasonable probability that the evidence would have resulted in a shorter sentence from an impartial, fair court? Reading Strickland in light of its specific facts seemingly foreclosed this decision in favor of objectivity. (5)

    However, in Dawson v. State, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District, came to the opposite conclusion. (6) The court entertained an appeal from a motion court's (7) rejection of a motion for post-conviction relief based on ineffective assistance of counsel, where the motion court also presided over the appellant's sentencing. (8) In line with its approach for the last decade, the Western District took the subjective approach. (9) It gave special deference to the lower court's prejudice analysis under Strickland precisely because that court would presumably know whether trial counsel's alleged failures would have altered its sentencing decision. (10) In fact, the Court of Appeals stated that a post-conviction court's prejudice analysis in such a circumstance is "virtually unchallengeable." (11)

    Part II of this Note details the facts and holding from Dawson v. State, with particular attention to the court's analysis of prejudice under the Strickland standard. Part III provides the legal context in which Dawson was decided. This includes identifying the source of the Strickland standard, as well as its interpretation in both federal and Missouri state courts. Part IV discusses the reasoning behind the prejudice analysis in Dawson, including Judge Alok Ahuja's concurrence, which draws attention to potential weaknesses in the majority's reasoning, given the context in which Strickland was decided. Part V provides commentary on Dawson, noting the difficulty in applying Strickland's prejudice prong when the post-conviction court also presided over the underlying criminal case. It also contemplates the appropriateness of such an arrangement. Part VI concludes and provides suggestions for further research.


    On November 16, 2015, Gabriel Dawson was placed on probation by the juvenile division of the Circuit Court of Buchanan County, Missouri for several acts of juvenile delinquency. (12) On May 17, 2016, Dawson participated in a robbery, during which an accomplice to the robbery died. (13) After the robbery, the juvenile division of the prosecutor's office filed a motion to prosecute Dawson as an adult, and the juvenile court granted the motion. (14) Dawson was then charged with the class B felony of attempted first-degree robbery. (15) On October 6, 2016, at the age of sixteen, Gabriel Dawson pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree robbery for the crime committed on May 17, 2016, in exchange for the prosecutor agreeing not to seek felony murder charges. (16) Dawson's plea and sentencing hearings were before Judge Patrick K. Robb, of the Circuit Court of Buchanan County, Missouri.

    During Dawson's sentencing hearing, the trial court questioned him about his understanding of the plea process. (17) He affirmed that he understood that he was facing a range of punishment of up to fifteen years with no probation. (18) Dawson also affirmed that no one had promised him a particular sentence in exchange for his plea. (19) The sentencing court found that Dawson's plea was made voluntarily and knowingly. (20) On December 12, 2016, the court sentenced Dawson to fourteen years in the custody of the Missouri Department of Corrections. (21) After the sentence was announced, Dawson confirmed to the sentencing court that he was satisfied with the legal representation that he had received from plea counsel. (22)

    Dawson then timely filed a pro se motion to vacate, amend, or set aside his sentence under Missouri Rule of Civil Procedure 24.035. (23) The court appointed post-conviction counsel to Dawson, who then filed an amended complaint on his behalf. (24) The amended motion claimed that Dawson was denied effective assistance of counsel at sentencing because (1) plea counsel, who also represented Dawson at sentencing, failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence of adolescent development at Dawson's sentencing hearing; and (2) plea counsel failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence from Dawson's family members and weightlifting coach at Dawson's sentencing hearing. (25) The amended motion claimed that Dawson was prejudiced by both of plea counsel's alleged failures because there was a reasonable probability that, but for them, he would have received a lesser sentence. (26)

    Dawson's post-conviction proceedings, including an evidentiary hearing, were before Judge Robb, who also presided over Dawson's underlying criminal plea and sentencing proceedings. (27) At the evidentiary hearing, a neuropsychologist testified regarding adolescent brain behavior generally, as well as regarding her personal evaluation of Dawson when he was seventeen. (28) Dawson's mother, grandmother, great-aunt, and weightlifting coach each testified to Dawson's character. (29) Conversely, Dawson's plea counsel testified that Dawson told her he wanted to take responsibility for his actions during sentencing and that she had advised against hiring an expert to testify to Dawson's mental development. (30) Plea counsel also testified that Dawson told her he did not want his mother to testify at his sentencing hearing, and that the weightlifting coach was contacted but was unavailable to testify at the sentencing hearing. (31)

    The motion court, the venue where a motion for post-conviction relief ("PCR") is heard, (32) denied Dawson's Rule 24.035 motion for PCR, concluding that even if plea counsel had presented at sentencing the mitigating evidence presented at the evidentiary hearing, Dawson would not have received a shorter sentence. (33) The Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, heard the case on appeal and upheld the judgment of the motion court. (34) It found that the motion court's conclusion that Strickland's prejudice prong was not met was objectively reasonable and not clearly erroneous. (35) The court reasoned that, based on its own precedent, where the motion court had the benefit of also being the sentencing court "the motion court's ruling as to the impact of character witnesses" at sentencing is "virtually unchallengeable," indicating deference to a seemingly subjective analysis of prejudice below. (36)


    This section first discusses the origins of the Strickland standard in the United States Supreme Court. Next, it examines the application of Strickland's prejudice prong in Missouri state courts. Finally, it presents decisions from United States Courts of Appeals to illustrate Strickland's interpretation and application in federal courts.

    1. Origins of the Strickland Standard

      The framework for analyzing a post-conviction claim of ineffective assistance of counsel was set forth in the Supreme Court of the United States's seminal decision in Strickland v. Washington. (37) In Strickland, the Supreme Court recognized that the Sixth Amendment guarantees to criminal defendants the right to effective assistance of counsel. (38) This right is violated both when the Government denies a defendant access to counsel, and when counsel's own deficient performance denies a defendant "adequate legal assistance." (39) The Supreme Court established a two-prong test for analyzing a post-conviction claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, colloquially known as the "Strickland standard." (40) First, a movant must show that counsel's performance was objectively deficient (41) Second, a movant must show that counsel's deficient performance prejudiced the movant. (42) If a movant fails to show either prong, "it cannot be said that the conviction or death sentence resulted from a breakdown in the adversary process that renders the result unreliable." (43)

      The first prong of the Strickland standard, the performance prong, governs the performance of defense counsel (44) The Supreme Court held that the applicable threshold required to ensure a fair trial is that of "reasonably effective assistance." (45) This requires a movant to show specific acts or omissions by defense counsel that do not fall within the scope of reasonable professional judgment. (46) The motion court must then judge the reasonableness of defense counsel's challenged conduct in light of the facts of the case at the time of the alleged acts or omissions. (47) Strickland demands that motion courts begin their evaluation with a strong presumption that...

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