The high court reinstated a conviction in the case of Lionel Gentry, a California man convicted of stabbing his pregnant, drug-addicted girlfriend during an argument.
"To be sure, Gentry's lawyer was no Aristotle, or even Clarence Darrow," the court wrote in a short, unsigned opinion.
Still, the lawyer's choice of words or strategy did not rise to the level of harming his client, the court said. The lawyer may have had good tactical reasons for presenting the case the way he did, the high court added.
"By candidly acknowledging his client's shortcomings, counsel might have built credibility with the jury and persuaded it to focus on the relevant issue in the case," the court said.
The court reversed a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that had erased Gentry's conviction on grounds that he had been denied his constitutional right to an effective lawyer.
The lawyer, whose name is not part of the court record, gave a short closing statement asking the jury to remember that Gentry said the stabbing was an accident. That assertion was really all that mattered, the lawyer said.
"The question is, did he intend to stab her? He said he did it by accident. If he's lying and you think he's lying then you have to convict him," the lawyer said.
"If you don't think he's lying, bad person, lousy drug addict, stinking thief jail bird, all that to the contrary, he's not guilty. It's as simple as that."
The jury deliberated about six hours before convicting Gentry. A state court upheld the sentence and Gentry turned to federal court for a second round of appeals.
The San Francisco-based federal appeals court then found that Gentry's lawyer failed him by not raising other potentially exculpatory evidence and by highlighting unsavory details of Gentry's character or background.
Wrong, said the Supreme Court. The appeals judges should have given more weight to the findings of the California state appeals court that had upheld the sentence, the high court said.
The Constitution, the court wrote, "guarantees reasonable competence, not perfect advocacy judged with the benefit of hindsight."
The case is Yarborough v. Gentry, 02-1597.
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By Anne Gearan