Category Archives: sixth amendment

A Founding Father of incompetence

This is Thomas Jefferson:

BIO_Mini-Bios_0_Thomas-Jefferson_151078_SF_HD_768x432-16x9This is Dennis Hawver, dressed at Thomas Jefferson, surrounded by people who are inexplicably not laughing their asses off at him:

Hawver-Jefferson

Hawver, a Republican and Libertarian once ran for Governor of Kansas and then attorney general and also for Congress.

Needless to say, he failed in his quest for any office.

Perhaps in keeping with his Jeffersonian obsession, he was also a criminal defense attorney. He also failed at that – and spectacularly so – but this time he wasn’t the only one who lost. His client, facing the death penalty, was duly sentenced to death, because perhaps Hawver hadn’t grasped the fact that dressing like Jefferson doesn’t mean anything if you didn’t stand for his principles either:

At trial, Hawver described his client, Phillip Cheatham Jr., as a “professional drug dealer” and a “shooter of people,” according to findings of fact cited by the state supreme court. During the sentencing phase of the trial, he said the killer should be executed. “I had a single mitigator to offer the jury in sentencing,” Hawver said in an affidavit, “and that was my argument that my client was innocent.”

Hawver didn’t investigate alibi witnesses and didn’t track his client’s cellphone to find his location at the time of the murders, the court said.

As a defense lawyer, defending his client against the death penalty, there is generally one unbreakable rule: don’t tell the jury to execute your client.

Hawver also told jurors that they should execute the killer in his closing argument.

Oh. To be fair, this might have had something to do with his unusual tactics:

Hawver had never previously tried a capital murder case and had not tried a murder case in more than 20 years, according to the opinion. He was unfamiliar with ABA guidelines for trying capital murder cases.

And when I say a spectacular failure, I mean spectacular:

Hawver had said he had no funds for a pretrial investigation and he didn’t call the indigent defense board to explore whether funding was available to support his representation. He also said he didn’t recall whether a board representative had called him with an offer to provide co-counsel, investigators, consultants and expert witnesses, but he doesn’t contest that an offer of funding was made.

During the arguments, Hawver identifies Jefferson as his hero and says he wore the outfit because he had a constitutional right to represent the client “as directed, instructed and agreed” by the client, “no matter what the ABA guidelines have to say.”

Hawver explained to the Kansas Supreme Court why he didn’t get cellphone records for an alibi defense. “I had no idea that cellphones had GPS capabilities at that time,” he said. “Did you? I didn’t. If I had known it, I’d have been on it like a dog on a bone.”

Thankfully, in 2013, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed Cheatham’s conviction and just last week, spared any other individual of having to be represented by a Jefferson clone by disbarring Hawver.

The fact that Hawver showed up to the disbarment argument in Jefferson garb might have had something to do with it (A good shot of his attire is at five minutes and 17 seconds; his argument begins at 22 minutes and 38 seconds.):

 

Friendly reminder to law enforcement: stop listening to attorney-client conversations

It is, of course, an undeniable fundamental right that communications between a criminal defendant and his or her attorney should be utterly confidential1 and that, under no circumstances, should the prosecution get access to the content of those conversations.

Having said that, what is to be done if a prosecutor gets hold of confidential communications or learns of the substance of these conversations? Must there be an automatic reversal? Or this “fundamental right” to be rendered meaningless yet again, subjected to the legal fiction of harmlessness.

That is the question confronted by the Supreme Court of Washington in State v. Fuentes. In Fuentes, after the defendant was convicted by a jury, but during the pendency of post-trial motions, the prosecutor asked the investigating detective to listen to the defendant’s phone calls from jail to determine if there was any witness tampering going on2:

TX man thinks he’s better than the TN public defender system

First, in Texas, a man was charged with multiple murders and the prosecutor is deciding whether to seek the death penalty. In that case, his lawyer is a kid named Maverick Ray1. Mark Bennett has this to say about Ray:

The cal­low­est young lawyer puts up a web­site in which he calls him­self “The Law Offices of Mav­er­ick Ray” (he has one office), “An Expe­ri­enced Hous­ton Sex Crimes Lawyer Your Free­dom Can Depend On” (he has been licensed for less than eight months and been hired on one felony sex case), “the Assas­sin of Sup­pres­sion” (Har­ris County records show no granted sup­pres­sion motions in drug cases), “Houston’s pre­mier DWI Attor­ney” (I won­der what Gary Trichter or Troy McK­in­ney, or Lewis Dick­son, to name but three of Houston’s top DWI lawyers, with decades of expe­ri­ence each—[edit: not to men­tion Tyler Flood]—would have to say about that), “often opt­ing to let a jury deter­mine whether some­one was truly intox­i­cated rather than the highly flawed Field Sobri­ety Tests, Breath Tests, or Blood Tests” (Dis­trict Clerk records do not show him try­ing a sin­gle DWI case in Har­ris County dur­ing those eight months).

Maybe all of this can some­how be ratio­nal­ized in a cal­low young lawyer’s mind, but it just isn’t true. Mav­er­ick is a nice kid, but I think he’s com­mit­ting large-scale fraud on poten­tial clients. Even if it’s fac­tual, it’s decep­tive. I am sad­dened and dis­ap­pointed, and I see no way for this to end well for him.

But—for now at least—it works. Ray gets at least three new cases a week on aver­age, mostly felonies. I don’t know how much he’s charging—whatever it is, it’s too much—but it doesn’t take big fees to turn 94 cases in a lit­tle over seven months into seri­ous money.

Walker County District Attorney David Weeks, the prosecutor who’s deciding whether to seek the death penalty, has this to say about Mr. Ray:

Weeks also challenged the defense attorney’s qualifications to try a capital case Friday morning. Ray has only been out of law school for six months. There are concerns that his lack of experience hampers Lewis’ right to a fair trial, thus bolstering Lewis’ chance at an appeal if he is found guilty.

Kraemer had appointed a lawyer to represent Lewis who is approved to defend capital cases in Walker County, but Lewis chose to hire his own counsel.

“I am extremely troubled about Mr. Ray’s lack of knowledge and training in taking this case,” Weeks said. “(Capital murder) is the most difficult and integral criminal case we have in this state.”

Mr. Ray’s response – “the defendant has the right to choose his own attorney” is the correct response, but also the wrong, glib response. I’m not sure there’s a single attorney, no matter how talented, in the United States, who is qualified to handle a death penalty case within the first 5 years of practicing as a lawyer.

Meanwhile, in reality:

“Because of the state’s filing of a death motion in this case, our office quite frankly lacks the resources to defend a death penalty case,” [Nashville Assistant Public Defender Mike] Engle told [Criminal Court Judge Randall] Wyatt in court Monday morning.

Engle said the American Bar Association estimates that a typical death penalty case requires upward of 2,000 hours of preparation. He explained that the office only has a few attorneys qualified to defend capital cases, two of whom are already on one case, and one of whom is retiring soon. The others, he said, have supervisory duties over other public defenders, making it impossible for them to take on a case of the magnitude of the one against Jenkins.

The ABA standards for death penalty representation [PDF]2 are lengthy and involved. They require hours and months of training, tutelage and study. They are not to be taken lightly, or glibly.

Mr. Ray seems to be making the same mistake that most attorneys who aren’t that sure of themselves make: acting too sure of themselves. The best ones will admit what they know and don’t know and the best new ones will recognize this early on.

It’s one thing to tout yourself as the “premier DUI lawyer” only 6 months out of law school. It’s quite another thing to take on the defense of a death penalty case. Even if it is Texas.

Update: Tornado Mark, in his gentle, kind way is soliciting advice for the Maverick in re: his capital representation. Be sure to add your two cents.

The Harmless Writ: whether you get due process depends on how guilty you are

In The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton argued that the Constitution should provide for the writ [of habeas corpus] “in the most ample manner” because it served as a bulwark against “arbitrary methods of prosecuting pretended offenses [and] arbitrary punishments upon arbitrary convictions.” The drafters of the Constitution imbedded it in Article I before adopting the Bill of Rights.

The Supreme Court has attested to the writ’s significance on many occasions. At different times, the Court has declared that habeas corpus is intended “to liberate an individual from unlawful imprisonment,” a procedure for “securing to the petitioners their constitutional rights,” and “the best and only sufficient defense of personal freedom,” which, if withdrawn, “risk[s] injury to an important interest in human liberty.”

Most recently, the Court described the writ of habeas corpus as a “vital instrument” to securing “freedom from unlawful restraint,” such freedom being “a fundamental precept of liberty.”

Taken, once again, from this law review article [PDF]. To those who don’t know, a petition for writ of habeas corpus is a post-conviction1 avenue to challenge the legality of their incarceration.

As the legendary Judge Weinstein quoted in his report on 500 habeas corpus cases:

The writ tests only whether a prisoner has been accorded due process, not whether he is guilty.

Because, at one point in time, in this country and this legal system, we valued the process as much as the outcome. We placed emphasis on doing things correctly, because we possibly recognized that we all weren’t so blissfully immune from the powerful crosshairs of a runaway government. To that end, judges across the various states and in the federal system were given broad authority to hear these “habeas petitions” challenging the legality of convictions.

Concomitantly, they were given broad powers to fashion remedies, because the harm caused by a violation of a Constitutional right must be made whole as completely as possible.

In Hilton v. Braunskill, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote

Federal habeas corpus practice, as reflected by the decisions of this Court, indicates that a court has broad discretion in conditioning a judgment granting habeas relief.

So, for example:

Riggs v. Fairman, 399 F.3d 1179 (9th Cir.2005), a district court has considerable discretion in fashioning a remedy tailored to the injury suffered from the constitutional violation, and a court must consider the unique facts and circumstances of a particular case; Jeanty v. Bulger, 204 F.Supp.2d 1366 (S.D.Fla.2002), a court granting a writ of habeas corpus may also issue an injunction in aid of the writ; Gall v. Parker, 231 F.3d 265 (6th Cir.2000), a habeas court has broad discretion in fashioning habeas relief; Hannon v. Maschner, 981 F.2d 1142 (10th Cir.1992), a district court may exercise its broad authority in habeas cases to grant any relief it deems necessary, including 638*638 permanent discharge of a successful habeas petitioner; Hilton v. Braunskill, 481 U.S. 770, 107 S.Ct. 2113, 95 L.Ed.2d 724 (1987), federal courts have largest power to control and direct the form of judgment entered in cases brought up on habeas corpus; Jean v. Meissner, 90 F.R.D. 658 (S.D.Fla.1981), where appropriate, a habeas court may grant injunctive, declaratory and mandatory relief; Hobson v. Murray, 485 F.Supp. 1340 (E.D.Va.1980), federal courts are not narrowly restricted in fashioning an appropriate remedy on granting petition for writ of federal habeas corpus relief but instead, the court is charged to dispose of the matter as law and justice require; U.S. ex. rel. Marrero v. Warden, Lewisburg Penitentiary, 483 F.2d 656 (3rd Cir.1973), immediate and unconditional release is not the only remedy available in a habeas corpus proceeding.

Gentry v. Deuth. In Connecticut, this power, which derives from the habeas corpus court being a “court of equity” is identical to the power of the federal court. There are a set of statutes in this state, duly enacted by the legislature, that create special “habeas corpus courts”2 In CT, the legislature deemed it efficient to consolidate all these petitions in one courthouse in Rockville and assign 2-3 judges there to hear and dispose of all these cases. When I say “habeas court”, I’m referring to a judge assigned to sit as a habeas judge by the administration of the judicial branch. Once a judge has been administratively assigned to assume that role for a period of 2 or 3 years3, the judge takes on the duties, responsibilities and powers of the habeas corpus court which are given to it either by the common law (all the quotes above) or by statute, which states:

(a) The court or judge hearing any habeas corpus shall proceed in a summary way to determine the facts and issues of the case, by hearing the testimony and arguments in the case, and shall inquire fully into the cause of imprisonment and thereupon dispose of the case as law and justice require.

Emphasis added by me. Because as of today, that bolded portion is functionally excised from the law books and placed in the metaphorical trash heap which the CT Supreme Court is doing a fine job of filling with your and my individual rights and liberties.

In a decision today [PDF] in H.P.T. v. Commissioner that is one in a long line of utterly confused and confusing decisions about what, exactly, one must do in order to correct a Constitutional wrong when it comes to bad advice given by an individual’s lawyer, the court effectively divests these “habeas corpus” courts of their long-standing and inherent power to fashion the appropriate remedy.

This supreme court, for some reason, has gotten it into its head for over a decade now, that impartial habeas courts whose job is to determine whether a person has been “accorded due process”, not to sit and once again decide “whether he is guilty” are the wrong jurists to determine just what is to be done once they have decided that there was no due process.

A habeas court, generally, decides three things:

  1. Was there a Constitutional violation?
  2. Was there harm to the individual?
  3. How do we fix it?

There is absolutely no precedent whatsoever for questions 1 & 2 to be decided by one court and question 3 to be answered by another court altogether. And yet here we are in CT where this is precisely what has happened.

Here’s what the court wrote:

the proper remedy remains the same in most cases, namely, remanding the case to the trial court, which is vested with the discretion to [return the individual to pre-harm status]

Except, as we have seen just above, it is the habeas court, not the trial court that is “vested with the discretion”.

In order for its proposition, this opinion in H.P.T. cites only two cases4. One is its own opinion from last year in Ebron v. Commissioner, which is based primarily on a (deliberate?) misreading of Lafler and Frye and Lafler itself. The problem is that the SCOTUS cases of Lafler and Frye deal with setups where the trial court and the habeas court are one and the same, which is clearly not the scenario here in Connecticut.

So, in this opinion today, the CT Supreme Court has, without being asked to or without any due consideration, effectively repealed a statute duly passed by the State legislature. It has done so for one reason and one reason only:

In our view, the determination of the appropriate remedy will, in most cases, more properly be made by the trial court than by the habeas court because the former generally will have greater experience than the latter in crafting criminal sentences and, in some cases, may have access to information about the petitioner and the crime that is not available to the habeas court.

In other words, because the trial judge will know if he’s a really bad guy who needs to be locked up. The beauty of having an independent court not only evaluate the harm, but then also direct the remedy is that by virtue of being independent, the court has no stake in the game. It is not being asked to second guess or explain its own decision making.

Remember that the trial judge is the one that presided over the case when it was initially pending. This is the judge who may have ruled on discovery requests and, more importantly, conveyed plea bargain offers to the individual’s lawyer. This is the judge who was informed of the vagaries of the case and the strength of the evidence of guilt, or lack thereof. This is a judge who has formed an opinion of the individual’s guilt.

The supreme court says today, in stark contrast to centuries of habeas corpus jurisprudence, that guilt is relevant to determining whether an individual should be afforded the protection of the Constitution against illegal convictions.

The court affirms that as long as someone is guilty, it doesn’t matter how that conviction was obtained.

A Constitutional harm is being weighed not against the principle that was violated or the actual harm caused to an individual, but against the character of that person.

What this decision today does, is give rise to a scenario where questions 1 and 2 above may be answered in the affirmative and question 3 may be answered by a judge with an emotional stake in the outcome who might proffer a middle finger by way of remedy.

We may end up with a situation with absolutely no relief for a proven Constitutional violation. A harm without a remedy is no harm at all.

This court has managed to take the “best and only sufficient defense of personal freedom” and turn it into a harmless piece of paper.

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Restoring sanity to child sex cases

For as long as I can remember, there has been one fundamental truth in Connecticut if you are charged with a crime involving a sexual assault: you’re screwed1.

There’s the “liberal” standard of admitting prior sexual assault allegations in a case involving sexual assault, there’s straight up “once a sexual assault criminal, always any other type of criminal” and the almost unhindered admission of any type of “expert” testimony of an “expert” who claims to be an “expert” in the area of child sexual abuse [read: anecdotal evidence predicated solely on confirmation bias] despite a somewhat half-hearted effort to walk that back just ever so slightly and always distinguishably2 and then there’s the only-salvageable-by-judicial-fiat-Risk-of-Injury-statute, which is probably the most dangerous statute for due process and individual liberty and freedom that exists in Connecticut.

Come on, we’re not even pretending anymore

whatisthisidonteven

If you for some reason start a judicial opinion with the following:

By virtue of a reassignment within the Mercer County Office of the Public Defender (OPD), defendant Terrence Miller did not meet his attorney until the morning on which his trial was   scheduled to begin.

and then explain further that:

Defendant’s new attorney was a public defender with nineteen years of experience in legal practice, including some experience in criminal cases. On Thursday, December 6, 2007, defendant’s new attorney was informed by his supervisors at the Mercer County OPD that he would be transferred from his current assignment in the Mercer County OPD’s juvenile unit to a trial team responsible for cases overseen by the trial judge in this case. The attorney was told that day that he would serve as defendant’s trial counsel and that defendant’s trial was expected to begin on the following Monday, December 10, 2007. It would be his first adult criminal trial in seven years.

[No. Stop. You really need to read that blockquote. Don’t skip it.] And then recite more facts like these: He worked for an hour and a half on Thursday. On Friday he worked on the case for 2 1/2 hours. Then, on Saturday:

defendant’s counsel conducted a three- to four-hour review of relevant evidence rules and suppression law to prepare himself for proceedings in adult criminal court

and on Sunday, he spent three hours reviewing discovery and preparing cross-examination. In all, he spent 10-11 hours preparing for a trial. For his first criminal trial in 7 years. For a client he’d never met.

Clearly unclear and unequivocally equivocal

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes Vogons as:

[O]ne of the most unpleasant races in the galaxy – not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without an order, signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public enquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.

There is no way that Douglas Adams, when he created the Vogons, would have the foresight to know of the CT Supreme Court. But in his description of the Vogons, he has also put into words the most precise description of this State’s highest court1.

They’re not evil. They’re bureaucratic.

And they certainly won’t lift a finger unless every request you’ve made is signed in triplicate and somehow magically predicts the spot to the which they’re going to move the target and then manages to hit it perfectly, while following all the rules they’ve subsequently made up.

Some of their opinions are much like Vogon poems:

Vogon poetry is of course, the third worst in the universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their poet master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning”, four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging and the president of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived only by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos was reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his 12-book epic entitled “My Favourite Bathtime Gurgles” when his own major intestine–in a desperate attempt to save life itself-leapt straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.

So pretty much how I feel after reading CT Supreme Court opinions. Like this one from yesterday [PDF].

Meet Michael Pires, Sr2. Pires was a VeryBadMan©, guilty of murder. Michael Pires also had a big problem with his lawyer. In a word, he didn’t like her. So he tried, on many occasions to fire her. The problem is, that he didn’t hire her to begin with, so the upside-down law says that you can’t fire someone you didn’t hire.

As a poor person who couldn’t afford private counsel to defend a murder charge – and let’s be honest, unless you live in Fairfield County or the East End of Long Island, you can’t afford a private attorney to represent you on a murder charge – he was appointed a public defender.

And once you have counsel foisted upon you, you’re stuck with that attorney no matter how much you hate him or her. Because that’s what you get for free.

Now there is an alternative, which is usually used as a stick to make the carrot of the infuriating counsel-who-can’t-be-fired more attractive: represent yo’self! After all, Faretta v. California says that it a core Constitutional right to be permitted to represent oneself.

In order to exercise that right, you have to inform the Court somehow that you want to. That’s fair and logical. You can’t be afforded a right that you don’t express you want to exercise.

So, what did Pires do, after rounds of headbutting with his LawyerWhoCouldn’tBeFired? He apparently told her he wanted to represent himself. Which she duly conveyed to the court:

I did go downstairs and attempt to talk to [the defendant]. He did want to discuss strategy with me. He indicated now that he wishes to represent himself in this matter. I informed him that I didn’t think Your Honor was going to allow him to represent himself on a murder charge simply because that would be much too dangerous and it would not be in his best interest. And that’s about where we stand, Your Honor.

Putting aside the fact that counsel’s advice was blatantly wrong, she is alerting the court “that he wishes to represent himself in this matter”.

Now. Imagine you’re the CT Supreme Court. A court that has increasingly become reliant on procedural rules to deny VeryBadPeople new trials. A court that has become so reluctant to judge whether rights have been violated that it makes a tortoise stuck in its shell look like Evel Knievel.

So what do you do? Well 5 of them decided that his “request” wasn’t “a clear and unequivocal invocation” of his right to self-representation.

At this point, I’m just inclined to throw up my hands and say “I don’t even know anymore”. How can “he indicated now that he wishes to represent himself” not be a “clear and unequivocal invocation”?

I mean, surely there must be some rules in place to deal with situations where unsophisticated defendants make fumbling assertions of their individual rights, much less so clear and unequivocal?

Why yes, yes there are. Articulated by this very court, just last year in State v. Jordan:

Although a clear and unequivocal request is required, there is no standard form it must take. “[A] defendant does not need to recite some talismanic formula hoping to open the eyes and ears of the court to [that] request. Insofar as the desire to proceed pro se is concerned, [a defendant] must do no more than state his request, either orally or in writing, unambiguously to the court so that no reasonable person can say that the request was not made. . . . Moreover, it is generally incumbent upon the courts to elicit that elevated degree of clarity through a detailed inquiry. That is, the triggering statement in a defendant’s attempt to waive his right to counsel need not be punctilious; rather, the dialogue between the court and the defendant must result in a clear and unequivocal statement.”

Ask the damn question. If a lawyer or defendant tells you he wants to represent himself, how long does it take to ask him a few questions? Really? Why is everything a game?

Chief Justice Rogers, who wrote Jordan, dissents in Pires [PDF] saying essentially the same thing she said before: that requests for self-representation can be made through counsel and that this is as clear as they come.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that the die has long been cast. The lasting legacy of the “Rogers court” will be their systematic destruction of modes of review. For those who don’t know what I mean, I’m referring to the methods by which appellate courts, whose job it is to ensure that trials were conducted fairly and according to the law and rules of court, determine whether that was done.

If improper evidence was admitted, a new trial may be warranted. If Due Process was violated, a new trial may be warranted. If a judge or lawyer makes a mistake that results in the violation of rights, remedies must be issued. We used to value the protections built into our system more than we valued the result. But now, we value procedure over all else.

So if you are on trial and the judge admits some very improper and damaging evidence against you, evidence that the jury should have under no circumstances heard or considered, and your lawyer didn’t object either because she was asleep or frenzied or scared or incompetent, our appellate courts will refuse to remedy that wrong, because proper procedure wasn’t followed.

It’s akin to doctors refusing to perform surgery because there isn’t a signature on the requisition form for the lightbulbs that are in the operating room.

There is a silver lining, though: maybe someday soon the Court will start to get it. There are fresh faces on the court and more to come. Maybe people will start to realize how narrow appellate review has become. That maybe elevating finality and form over substance has negative consequences for society as a whole.

Well, if not, then we can always go have a drink at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

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