Category Archives: supreme court

It’s not like you knew you had that right, anyway.

We can all name certain rights that we have: the right to counsel, the privilege against self-incrimination, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to say whatever the hell you want, the right to have the arms of a bear, etc. But do we think that these are all the rights we have? Especially in the criminal context, there are various other rights that each person has that we may not necessarily be aware of. The right to a trial by jury, for example, is well known, but it is actually the right to a public trial by jury. [TL;DR at end of the post.]

Well sure, that seems obvious enough: you can’t have a trial in a closed courtroom, or in a judge’s chamber somewhere. According to Presley v. Georgia [PDF], the Constitution guarantees it. But did you know that a courtroom, while seemingly open, might be “closed” to the public? And did you know that, even if you didn’t know that, your lawyer may make the decision to say that’s okay without telling you?

That’s what the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court concluded in Commonwealth v. Lavoie last month. In Lavoie, they were conducting public voir dire, which last two days. Apparently because there were so many prospective jurors, the court sheriffs asked family members of the defendant to leave the courtroom and told them they couldn’t be present because there was no room for them. The lawyer didn’t notice; the judge didn’t notice. The defendant did know it and he was annoyed, but didn’t say anything, because, you know, he’s a defendant in a criminal trial and he’s not exactly in charge of much.

So he got convicted and some years later filed a motion for new trial arguing that his Constitutional right to a public trial was violated. The State naturally objected, claiming almost preposterously that he had implicitly waived the right because he didn’t say anything to anyone and neither did his lawyer. Lavoie responded, rather logically:

there was no explicit waiver by the defendant or his attorney, and … defense counsel could not waive his client’s rights without ever discussing the issue of his right to a public trial with him. The defendant further states that a waiver of this right could not have occurred where he did not know he had such a right or understand that his counsel made a decision concerning that right.

In other words: how the hell do I waive something I don’t know I had the right to? Quite simply, says the Court, because your lawyer made a tactical decision to do so. And there, kids, is how the courts get away with almost anything: by couching everything in terms of a decision of tactics, the courts shift the power of enforcement from the defendant to his lawyer. Even when his lawyer doesn’t remember consciously making that tactical decision. Like, oh, I don’t know, Lavoie’s lawyer:

Defense counsel stated that it was not his usual practice to object when court officers cleared the court for jury selection because he was aware that space was often insufficient, and he did not want to interfere with “court officers who he perceived engaged in a difficult job” or to have family members sitting near potential jurors. Defense counsel also expressed his belief that family members could present a distraction and, specific to this case, stated his concern that the defendant’s mother “was an emotional individual [who would] be a distraction.”

Although defense counsel had no specific recollection of court officers excluding the defendant’s family during jury selection and did not discuss this issue with the defendant, “he had consciously decided prior to this trial not to object to the removal of family members or supporters during the jury selection process in courtroom 12B.”

The emphasis is all mine just to highlight the bullshit. I’ll bet you a box of Krispy Kreme donuts this attorney, when seeing a copy of the motion raising this claim, thought: “oh crap, I never even thought of that!” And if you’ve practiced criminal law for longer than a second, you’ve already run into some CYA lawyer who’s told you to claim it was a tactical decision, no matter what. Courts are all too happy to oblige, because really, he was guilty, right? And that’s all that matters?

[Because really that’s what the value of your rights are. Are you guilty enough? That’s the justification for repeated violations of Constitutional rights: harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. “Well yes, this confession was obtained illegally, but he was really guilty, so it doesn’t matter” and on and on.

The legal gymnastics really are a sight to behold: 1. The defendant has a lawyer, so the lawyer’s word is as good as the defendant’s. 2. Except when the lawyer speaking doesn’t mean anything [State v. Johnson, PDF] if the defendant doesn’t speak. 3. Even if either and or both speak, it’s not sufficient because they didn’t explain their objection properly. 4. Even if they objected, they didn’t list all the possible grounds for objection so it’s waived5. If they said the rights words, they didn’t object a second time and that was essential. 6. If they objected a second time and properly preserved the issue, it doesn’t matter because he’s guilty anyway.

And yet we puzzle why this happens over and over again and why judges and prosecutors and cops don’t learn: because there’s no punishment for doing it wrong. It’s like having a cat that constantly eats your birds but you don’t do anything because, well, you don’t give it enough food, so it’s justified.

So our rights will always be infringed upon because there’s no corresponding punishment for violating them: and you and I and the rest of us “non-criminals” are just as implicit in this erosion as the judicial system. We cry and moan about “guilty” people getting off on “technicalities”. The Constitution isn’t a technicality. It shouldn’t matter how guilty you think someone is; a violation of fundamental rights should have appropriate remedies. Because guess who decides if someone is guilty enough for the error to be harmless? Judges and courts and the legal system. It’s a system that feeds itself. And we will become fodder.]

The right to an open court in criminal proceedings is “an effective restraint on possible abuse of judicial power,” In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257, 270 (1948), which functions for “the benefit of the accused; that the public may see he is fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned.” Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 46 (1984). Yet, it is okay for a lawyer to implicitly do away with this right on behalf of his client without ever consulting or mentioning it to him?

It seems that the courtroom of justice has long been closed.

TL;DR because apparently everyone is stupid now and has no attention spans: your lawyer can waive rights on your behalf that you never knew you had because justice.

H/T: Juries

 

 

The joke’s on all of us

Our priorities have gone askew. Never has this been clearer to me than today, viewing from afar the circus surrounding an apparent once-in-a-decade event gathering steam: the utterance of words out loud by a Supreme Court Justice. Yes, he spoke. Yes, he said something incomprehensible. Yes, he and Scalia were making fun of Yale and Harvard. And that, apparently, is newsworthy. That, apparently, has been the impetus for hundreds of posts and BREAKING NEWS items and thousands of wasted pixels speculating exactly what he meant. Has the streak been broken, the L.A. Times – which I thought was a reputable newspaper, but apparently not – asks of its readers and also somewhat funnily has this sentence in the same article:

It’s a slow news day at the U.S. Supreme Court when the biggest story is whether an overheard, offhand comment by Justice Clarence Thomas means he has broken his nearly seven-year streak of silence.

It’s a slow news day if you don’t really care about the issue of the massive funding crisis that is threatening indigent defense across the country; it’s a slow news day if you’re too fucking stupid to realize that everyone’s due process rights are about to take it in a most impolite way if it’s okay for the State to hold someone for 5 years without giving them a trial. It’s a slow news day if writing about Justice Thomas uttering half a sentence at the Supreme Court is what you do when you’re waiting for Lindsay Lohan to fire another lawyer.

I’m amazed at the number of articles that keep popping up in my feed reader about Thomas and his words of wisdom. Hell, the New Yorker got into it to remind us that, in their opinion, Thomas really hates Yale. Liptak engages in a Zapruder film like frame-by-frame analysis of what this man might’ve uttered. I could go on and on with links, but you get the point.

You know what’s missing in every single one of these articles? A mention of Boyer. Who’s Boyer, you ask? Boyer, of Boyer v. Louisiana [SCOTUSBlog preview; oral argument transcript here]. Boyer, who sat in jail for 5 years facing the death penalty because the State could afford to only pay one of his lawyers – one that wasn’t qualified to represent him in a death penalty case. Boyer, in whose case witnesses died while he was waiting for the political football of indigent defense funding to stop getting punted around from endzone to endzone like it was a Browns vs. Cardinals game. Boyer, whose egregious delay the state of Louisiana seeks to shrug off as not really important and certainly not their fault.

The State of Louisiana which had the gall to argue before Justice Thomas and the rest of the Court that using funds to pay prosecutors to prosecute crimes but not defense lawyers to defend against those crimes is not a “deliberate choice”. It’s the same State that will argue that it’s the fault of the poor, jailed defendant with an 8th-grade education that he wasn’t tried for 5 years after arrest. It’s the same State that thinks it’s okay for him to proceed to defend a death penalty case with counsel who is ineffective.

You want a story? I’ll give you a story: this is the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright. That the decision trumpeted the arrival of an era of equal justice for all, but that era has never materialized. That states still woefully underfund indigent defense; that access to justice isn’t equal and that people get screwed. Every. Single. Day. And it’s this Court – Thomas and others – who have the authority to change that, to alter that reality for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Today for all my clients; tomorrow, perhaps for you.

But no. Let’s continue to be cute and write funny stories about what an odd man that Justice Thomas is that he hasn’t asked a question in 6 years and well, was he making fun of Harvard or Yale? Because, really, who gives a fuck about Boyer, right? Stupid Constitution getting in the way, just like Thomas always said.

Priorities.

TL;DR: Thomas mumbles, internet creams itself, Boyer sits in jail, Gideon weeps.

[Update: Sorry, couldn't resist this update. After my rant above, I stumbled across this stunningly bizarre, tone-deaf, self-important post by Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSBlog, who, apparently, chides the internet not for taking a serious issue and making light of it like I do, but almost the opposite: for taking the joke too seriously. That's some fucking serious level of meta that even I haven't been able to get to in all my years of internet trolling. Well played, TG, well played.]

Nullifying death

Today, all nine Justices of the Supreme Court met to decide whether to continue to permit juries in capital cases that are inherently biased toward imposing a sentence of death, or to finally revisit a much-maligned and problematic practice of “death qualification” of juries.

In 1968, the Supreme Court announced a seemingly bright-line test for determining when the State could unilaterally prevent jurors from serving on a capital case (exercising a peremptory challenge): when those jurors stated that they were unequivocally opposed to the death penalty and could not impose a sentence of death in any circumstance. In Witherspoon v. Illinois, the Supreme Court held that the State could legally excuse jurors:

who made unmistakably clear (1) that they would automatically vote against the imposition of capital punishment without regard to any evidence that might be developed at the trial of the case before them, or (2) that their attitude toward the death penalty would prevent them from making an impartial decision as to the defendant’s guilt.

Witherspoon, reaffirmed in Wainwright v. Witt, still rules the day. Death qualified juries are the norm and community members are regularly excluded based on their moral opposition to the death penalty.

Forfeit what?

Colin Miller, law professor at University of South Carolina School of Law and author of the highly informative EvidenceProf blog (which is the one lawprof blog that should be on everyone’s feed reader) has been blogging up a storm about the Drew Peterson verdict – specifically the role that the forfeiture by wrongdoing doctrine played in that conviction.

He started with this post on why any appeal in the Peterson case wouldn’t be based on “Drew’s Law”, then followed that up with these separate blog posts discussing the application of the forfeiture by wrongdoing doctrine and a discussion of the “transferred intent” theory of forfeiture which could be implied from Giles v. California. All of that has culminated in him writing this new essay [here's the PDF] which gathers his thoughts on the subject and concludes that Giles does indeed endorse (and must endorse) a transferred intent theory.

The problem with the transferred intent theory, as I mention in my post on the subject, is that it permits the introduction of a decedent’s statement in a murder trial for the murder of that very decedent. So even if the defendant made the witness unavailable to testify in another proceeding, the untested hearsay statements of that witness are used to prove that the defendant killed him/her. Indeed, many commentators and courts have reached this conclusion, arguing that it would make no sense in the context of the forfeiture doctrine to let those statements come in at a different trial, which was not even in existence at the time of making the the witness “unavailable”:

Should dead women tell some tales?

Having had my egg for lunch, I spent the better part of the day attempting to untangle the evidentiary web that seems to have ensnared many following and participating in the Drew Peterson saga. Drew Peterson, for those of you who don’t know, was a sort of Black Widower: a man who left a trail of dead wives. A jury just found him guilty of murdering his third (?) ex-wife, while wearing matching outfits. The jurors were wearing matching outfits, not Peterson and his wife. Lacking physical evidence, the prosecution relied on statements made by both his third ex-wife (the decedent in the trial) and his fourth (who is also missing) to friends, family and clerics.

And this is where, as they say, the plot thickens. With help from these two fantastic posts at EvidenceProf and this equally detailed post by anonymous public defender “S”, the issue has become somewhat clear less murky.

So, let’s start at the very beginning:

The statements in question do not implicate the Confrontation Clause of the United States Constitution. As stated in Crawford, the Confrontation Clause is concerned only with out of court testimonial statements. The out of court statements relied upon to convict Peterson were made to friends and family and thus not testimonial. So forget Crawford. What that leaves us with is whether the statements are admissible under any exceptions to the rule against hearsay.

To plead or not to plead: a critical question

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

So muses Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play of the same name. So goes the quandary faced by criminal defendants in today’s criminal justice system: to plead or not to plead? Is it more advisable to suffer the ignominy of a conviction and lesser jail time up front than to press the sword of trial and hope that it doesn’t turn on you, often to more deleterious effect?

Hamlet had no one to guide him honestly; the modern criminal defendant, however, does: his lawyer. And it is upon this lawyer that he relies for a frank and learned assessment of the pros and cons of the various options available to him. To argue that the decision to plead guilty or to reject an offer is not a “critical stage” of the criminal process is to disingenuously ignore the realities of this modern day system.

And yet this is precisely what agents of the various States have been arguing for many years. This is a nonsensical fight that I personally have fought for at least 5 years now, without any direct guidance from the United States Supreme Court. Until yesterday.

In two sure to be seminal cases, Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye [both PDF], the Supreme Court unequivocally held that the right to counsel at all “critical stages” of a criminal proceeding means the right to effective assistance of counsel at those stages and yes, Dorothy, the plea bargain is a “critical stage”.

The argument for this holding is best explained by stating the position of those against it. The position against is this: so long as a defendant receives a fair trial, it is irrelevant whether – and to what extent – his lawyer erred in the time leading up to that trial. Reductio ad absurdum, to these folks, if a lawyer never speaks to his client prior to the trial and conveys no offer, it doesn’t matter, because the right to effective assistance of counsel only has force in the context of a criminal trial.

To a less absurd degree, take the case of Lafler, whose lawyer told him that he should reject a very favorable pre-trial offer and instead make the State prove its case because there was no way he could legally be convicted of attempted murder, since the victim was shot in the leg.

You don’t need 3 years of law school and a passed bar exam to tell you that’s just wrong. Stupid, wrong and dangerous. But the States would have you believe that it is of no moment that such patently faulty advice was given, because Lafler received a fair trial.

Justice Kennedy, writing for both majorities, explains it well:

The reality is that plea bargains have become so central to the administration of the criminal justice system that defense counsel have responsibilities in the plea bargain process, responsibilities that must be met to render the adequate assistance of counsel that the Sixth Amendment requires in the criminal process at critical stages. Because ours “is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” Lafler, post, at 11, it is insufficient simply to point to the guarantee of a fair trial as a backstop that inoculates any errors in the pretrial process.  “To a large extent . . . horse trading [between prosecutor  and defense counsel] determines who goes to jail and for how long. That is what plea bargaining is.  It is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system;  it is the criminal justice system.”

While the significant role of plea bargaining cannot be diminished (also why ideas like taking every case to trial are stupid and unethical), I would argue that the right to effective assistance pre-trial is not a product of only that large impact of the plea process. It is also a matter of simple logic and ethical responsibility. As I’ve long argued, we are our clients’ shepherds through this complicated quagmire that we call the criminal justice system. The layman, untrained in the nuances of this system, look to us to proffer advice and most often follow our advice. How would you feel if you were given bad advice by the person whose only responsibility was to give you good advice?

Simply put, the issue boils down to this: if you have a right to have a lawyer give you advice, then you have a right to have that lawyer give you competent advice.

This is an outcome that everyone involved – judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys – should be cheering, because it ensures that the system is fair. That is not to say that all advice given by counsel that a defendant doesn’t like is per se ineffective, as some folks1 would have you believe. Rather that a court should evaluate that advice to determine whether it was sound. I suspect that in the vast majority of cases, the advice will be deemed so. But there will also be cases where, but for the misadvice of counsel, the defendant would have not been worse off.

The problem with these opinions lies – as it often does – with the remedy. Here is where I part ways with Justice Kennedy. He writes, in the context of a sentence after a jury trial and a rejected plea agreement:

The specific injury suffered by defendants who decline a plea offer as a result of ineffective assistance of counsel and then receive a greater sentence as a result of trial can come in at least one of two forms.  In some cases, the sole advantage a defendant would have received under the plea is a lesser sentence.  This is typically the case when the charges that would have been admitted as part of the plea bargain are the same as the charges the defendant was convicted of after trial.  In this situation the court may conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the defendant has shown a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s errors he would have accepted the plea.  If the showing is made, the court may exercise discretion in determining whether the defendant should receive the term of imprisonment the government offered in the plea, the sentence he received at trial, or something in between.

This proposed model of determining remedy is fundamentally unsound. The general underlying principle is – and should be – that the defendant, when disadvantaged by the Constitutional violation, should be placed back in the position he was in before the violation so disadvantaged him. See, e.g., Santobello v. New York. To suggest that an appropriate remedy for this Constitutional violation could be the same sentence he received as a result of this violation is incongruent and incomprehensible. In my mind, the only appropriate remedy2 is the first one: if the defendant can establish that the plea was rejected as a result of ineffective assistance and the plea would have been accepted by the judge, the only way to make the defendant whole is to sentence him to the terms of that plea. Anything else would be a band-aid on a gaping wound.

Finally, there will always be naysayers even among the defense bar. To them, I repeat words I wrote just under two years ago:

Ineffective assistance of counsel is a sort of “dirty” phrase in the criminal defense world. It is viewed by many as a personal attack and is met with scorn, anger and derision directed toward those who practice in the post-conviction arena. That this view is prevalent among the bar is alarming. It belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the duties and responsibilities of the defense lawyer in the criminal justice system.

IAC claims are not a taint on your reputation nor is it an indictment of your abilities. It is a recognition of the simple fact that we are all working within a juggernaut of a system that from time to time overwhelms even the best of us.  At the end of the day, it is you and I who go home to our comfortable beds. You and I have the ability to walk outside in the free world and to buy what we choose and talk to whom we want, whenever we want. To place our petty egos and some twisted sense of self-worth before the complaints of the convicted client, who has nothing but a badly beaten and bruised writ to use to seek his release from the oppressive conditions of confinement in our penal institutions is pettiness of the ugliest kind.

This may be getting repetitive, but it cannot be said enough that in order to truly serve our clients we must view ourselves as nothing but an extension of the individual client. We must be the client, at every moment that we represent them. We – criminal defense lawyers – are not parties to a criminal case. The client is. We are his representative. We must, at all times, remember that and act like it.

 

 

———————

1. The analogy given by the good folks at C&C is, simply put, stupid and inapposite. This is not a situation where “you offer to buy my car for $10,000.  After consulting with my expert, I reject the offer.  Turns out my expert gave me bad advice.  The next week, I want to go through with the deal.  In the meantime, though, I have wrecked the car.  Would it be fair to make you pay me $10,000 for the now-wrecked car?” The expert has no duty to give me advice and my “wrecking the car” is not analogous to going to trial with that expert as my advocate.

2. The same good folks at C&C suggest that the appropriate remedy should be that “the defense lawyer should be personally liable for the cost of the trial.  If the defense was the public defender’s office, the cost of prosecution should be transferred from the public defender’s budget to the district attorney’s budget.” If it wasn’t clear prior to today that the good folks at C&C were only concerned with obtaining convictions and watching people murdered by the State, it should be now. Such a rigid, simplistic view of the by-its-nature murky and unclear business of assigning guilt does a disservice to everyone.

 

Connickally yours

The problem with Brady v. Maryland, as many have argued, is that its effectiveness depends entirely on the charity and goodwill of prosecutors who are tasked with enforcing it. The only sword hanging over prosecutors’ head, forcing them to do “the right thing” is one that brings as its punishment obscure and vague references to the office they work in, buried deep in mildly reproachful appellate decisions. A vague notion called the “interests of justice” and pithy phrases reminding them that their job isn’t to “seek convictions” do little encourage them to fulfill their Constitutional obligation.

The only incentive – financial loss – was vilely struck down by SCOTUS in a decision (Harry “I’m the singer’s father” Connick v. Thompson) authored by Justice Thomas (who, in the words of one commentator, just doesn’t give a fuck). And Thomas seems to have a 20 year love affair with the crooner’s father, as evidenced by his joining the dissent in Kyles v. Whitley, another case highlighting the failure of Connick’s office to turn over exculpatory material, the aforementioned Connick v. Thompson, and his lone dissent in yesterday’s Smith v. Cain [PDF] – another Connick special.

Smith was about the prosecutor’s failure to turn over police notes that significantly undermined the testimony of the only witness against Smith. From this Slate article:

notes from the detective stating that the eyewitness said on the night of the murder that he “could not … supply a description of the perpetrators other then [sic] they were black males.” Again, five days after the crime, the ostensible eyewitness said he “could not ID anyone because [he] couldn’t see faces” and “would not know them if [he] saw them.” The detective wrote these statements down—and then wrote down “Could not ID.” It’s understandable that the eyewitness was, as he later said, “too scared to look at anybody” under the circumstances. But usually police know that a person who didn’t see a face is not an eyewitness at all.

And this was a “witness” who went on to testify with absolute conviction that Smith was, indeed, the perpetrator and he’d seen him face to face. Perhaps recognizing, albeit not acknowledging, that there may be such a thing as a Connick special, SCOTUS took cert. soon after Thompson and in brief, terse and matter-of-fact 4 page 8-1 opinion summarily reversed Smith’s conviction.

8-1. A lone dissent. Thomas authored a 17 page dissent extolling the virtues of eyewitness testimony and the jury’s function of determining the reliability of that testimony. Garbage. He knows it, I know it, his four conservative colleagues on the bench know it and don’t you fall for it. A jury can, I suppose, effectively evaluate the reliability and believability of a witness’ testimony, but only if that jury has all the relevant information before it from which to reach that conclusion. Hiding the fact that the only witness had several times claimed that he could not ID anyone hardly seems non-material.

That Thomas continues to ply this nonsense is not a testament – nor should it be – to the decline of the value of The Court, but rather a telling indictment of his abandonment of any modicum of intellectual honesty. In other words, he just doesn’t give a fuck anymore. Unfortunately, in doing so, he is fast making his presence on the Court a joke and, in the process, devaluing the institution.

————-

A day after the Court issued Smith, it issued Perry v. New Hampshire [PDF], a case that had incorrectly been called the next step in the development of eyewitness identification jurisprudence. The issue in Perry was far more limited and not a review of lineup procedures in of themselves. Here‘s a nice article by the same fellow who wrote the Slate piece above on the juxtaposition of the two cases.