In a petition for writ of habeas corpus, prisoners argue that they are being detained unlawfully. One of the most common types of claims, after all direct appeals have been exhausted, is that trial counsel was ineffective or incompetent. In order to prevail on these claims, a petitioner must demonstrate not only that counsel's performance was deficient, but that he was prejudiced - that is, the outcome would have been different. As it turns out, the Fourth Circuit agrees that sleeping during a substantial portion of your client's trial is ineffective assistance of counsel.
During Mr. Ragin's evidentiary hearing, two other attorneys who had been present during his trial, as well as a juror, testified about the performance of his trial counsel and the fact that he slept frequently. It was difficult to rouse him, so difficult, in fact, that his client "would have to punch him." The jurors noticed trial counsel sleeping, commented on it in the jury deliberation room, and considered it when rendering their verdict against Mr. Ragin.
The district court who first heard the habeas claim, and conducted the evidentiary hearing, denied and dismissed the case, finding that Mr. Ragin's lawyer did not sleep through a "substantial portion" of the trial, that Mr. Ragin had cause to "embellish" his claim, and that he had not shown prejudice. Cooler heads in the Fourth Circuit prevailed, even though this was a case of first impression for the panel.
"There are certain situations where the reliability of a trial becomes so questionable that the defendant need not show that he was actually prejudiced. Instead, prejudice is presumed. We believe that when counsel for a criminal defendant sleeps through a substantial portion of the trial, such conduct compromises the reliability of the trial, and thus no separate showing of prejudice is necessary."
Read the opinion - chock full of juicy details from what seems to have been a very entertaining evidentiary hearing!