The Right to Adequate Representation

Indigent defendants who are represented by appointed lawyers and defendants who can afford to hire their own attorneys are both entitled to adequate representation. But "adequate representation" does not mean perfect representation. However, an incompetent or negligent lawyer can so poorly represent a client that the court is justified in throwing out a guilty verdict based on the attorney's incompetence.

If a defendant's lawyer is ineffective at trial and on direct appeal, the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial has been violated. In analyzing claims that a defendant's lawyer was ineffective, the principal goal is to determine whether the lawyer's conduct so undermined the functioning of the judicial process that the trial cannot be relied upon as having produced a just result. Proving this requires two steps:

  1. The defendant must show that his own lawyer's job performance was deficient. The defendant must prove that his counsel made errors so serious that the lawyer did not function as the counsel guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.
  2. The defendant must show that the deficient performance unfairly prejudiced the defense. The defendant must show that his lawyer's errors were so serious as to wholly deprive the defendant of a fair trial.


Unless a defendant proves both steps, the conviction or sentence cannot be said to result from a breakdown in the judicial process such that the result is unreliable. When courts review a lawyer's advocacy of a defendant, they are deferential. Courts are bound by a strong presumption that any given lawyer's conduct falls within the range of reasonable professional assistance.

Examples of Inadequate Representation

Some of the more common claims of inadequate representation that would unfairly prejudice a case could include an attorney's:

  • Failure to investigate a case
  • Failure to present supporting witnesses
  • Failure to interview or cross-examine witnesses
  • Failure to object to harmful evidence or arguments/statements
  • Failure to seek DNA or blood testing (where available)
  • Failure to timely file appeals
  • Failure to determine whether there would be a conflict with representation

In one case involving burglary and sexual assault, the criminal defendant's attorney decided not to perform a DNA test at trial due, in part, to its cost. However, on appeal, DNA tests were performed and provided some exonerating evidence.

The appellate court viewed the new DNA evidence together with discrepancies in the identification of the suspect at the time and found that the evidence could have caused the jury to conclude that the defendant had been mistakenly identified as the suspect. The court ultimately reversed the conviction, finding that the trial attorney's decision not to seek DNA testing constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.

Exercise Your Right to Adequate Counsel Today 

If you're currently represented by a lawyer, but are concerned about his or her performance, or are trying to appeal a conviction, you can always obtain a second opinion from an experienced lawyer. In many of these cases, it's important to act quickly to change course, if needed, so reach out to a criminal defense lawyer near you today.

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