Harden v. United States, No. 20-1154 (7th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
A jury found Harden guilty of conspiring to distribute heroin and found that Schnettler's death had “resulted from” the use of that heroin. He was sentenced to life in prison under 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(B), which increases the maximum statutory term of imprisonment for a drug offense on a finding that “death or serious bodily injury result[ed] from the use of [the] substance.” After an unsuccessful appeal, Harden moved under 28 U.S.C. 2255 to vacate his sentence, asserting that his attorney was ineffective in agreeing to a jury instruction that repeated section 841(b)(1)(B) but did not elaborate that his heroin had to be the “but-for” cause of Schnettler’s death and failing to present expert testimony to rebut evidence that his heroin caused that death. The court denied his motion without an evidentiary hearing.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed. In this case, the instruction was a correct statement of the law; no evidence would have led the jury to find that heroin was merely a “contributing” cause of death, so competent counsel would not suspect that the instruction might be confusing. Schnettler died from the toxicity of a single drug; the only issue concerned the timing of his use of the heroin and his death. Given the evidence that counsel did consult an expert, the decision not to call that expert “is a paradigmatic example of the type of strategic choice.”