Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Before "Powell v. Alabama"
Isabella Nitti-the first woman sentenced to death in Illinois-was national news in her time. Today she is remembered (if at all) as one of the notorious "husband killers" who inspired the Broadway play Chicago. Less well remembered is that Nitti was also one of the first Americans to have her conviction reversed, and her death sentence vacated, on the basis that her lawyer was grossly incompetent.3 Reviewing Nitti's trial on appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court described her attorney as "ignoran[t]," "stupid," and "unfamiliar with the simplest rules of evidence." To uphold Nitti's conviction under these circumstances, the court reasoned, would reduce the federal and state constitutional guarantees of the right to counsel to "mere empty formalities." What may surprise lawyers and legal scholars about People v. Nitti is not its Broadway-ready facts, but its date: 1924. Today, we would classify Nitti as a case about "ineffective assistance of counsel" ("IAC"). Although rarely successful, 6 LAC claims now comprise the majority of challenges to criminal convictions in the United States. Yet legal scholars typically frame JAC doctrine as a more recent invention.