Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Anthony D. Lee, Sr. was convicted of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault in 1996 and sentenced to 100 years in prison. Lee's defense was that the victim had voluntarily entered his car and that any sexual activity was consensual. He later sought postconviction relief, arguing that his attorney, Richard Friedman, had failed to interview several potential witnesses who could have corroborated his testimony. Lee supported his motion with six affidavits from these potential witnesses. The trial court denied Lee's ineffective-assistance claim, and the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the decision.Lee then sought relief in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court denied his petition, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit disagreed with the lower courts' decisions. The appellate court found that the state court had based its prejudice analysis on the flawed assumption that each witness would have merely repeated their affidavits and refused to say another word if called to testify. The appellate court vacated and remanded the case to the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing on Lee's claim.After a three-day hearing, the district court again denied Lee's § 2254 petition. The court concluded that Lee failed to establish that Friedman's performance fell below an objective standard of professional competence. Alternatively, the court concluded that any errors Friedman might have committed did not meaningfully compromise Lee's defense given the strength of the state's case. Lee appealed this decision.The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court found that Lee failed to demonstrate a "reasonable probability" that the result of his trial would have been different had Friedman not committed professional errors. The court noted that none of the affidavits provided an explanation for the severity of the victim's injuries, and that the additional testimony from the witnesses may have ultimately weakened Lee's defense by contradicting his testimony or their own affidavits. View "Lee v. Galloway" on Justia Law

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Mark Andrew Belyeu was charged with five offenses related to sexual exploitation of a minor. He initially pled guilty to two of the charges, but later withdrew his pleas. After a change of counsel, Belyeu again pled guilty to the same two charges. The court found his guilty pleas were knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently given. Belyeu was subsequently sentenced and judgment was entered.Belyeu filed a petition for postconviction relief, alleging that his guilty pleas were not knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently given due to ineffective assistance of his trial counsel and the existence of newly discovered evidence. The district court dismissed Belyeu’s claims of actual innocence and his sentence not being authorized by law, and limited the evidentiary hearing to the remaining two claims. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied Belyeu’s petition for postconviction relief.The Supreme Court of North Dakota affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that Belyeu failed to show that his counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. The court also found that Belyeu failed to show that but for his counsel's alleged errors, he would not have pled guilty and would have insisted on going to trial. Furthermore, the court found that Belyeu did not meet his burden to show newly discovered evidence. Therefore, the court concluded that Belyeu could not show a manifest injustice based on the advice of his counsel or the existence of newly discovered evidence. View "Belyeu v. State" on Justia Law

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The case involves Miguel Tebalan Rivera who was convicted of second-degree murder and commission of a crime of violence while in possession of a knife with a blade longer than three inches. Rivera filed an application for postconviction relief, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to advise him that if he did not testify, he would be convicted of second-degree murder.The trial court granted Rivera's application for postconviction relief, finding that his trial counsel's performance was deficient and that this deficiency prejudiced Rivera's defense. The court found that Rivera's trial counsel failed to advise him that if he did not testify, he would be convicted of second-degree murder. The court also found that Rivera's trial counsel failed to recognize and explain to Rivera that if he did not testify, he would be waiving his right to present his claim of self-defense.The State of Rhode Island appealed the trial court's decision, arguing that the trial court erred in finding that Rivera's trial counsel was ineffective. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island affirmed the trial court's decision, holding that Rivera's trial counsel's performance was deficient and that this deficiency prejudiced Rivera's defense. The court found that Rivera's trial counsel failed to advise him that if he did not testify, he would be convicted of second-degree murder. The court also found that Rivera's trial counsel failed to recognize and explain to Rivera that if he did not testify, he would be waiving his right to present his claim of self-defense. View "Rivera v. State of Rhode Island" on Justia Law

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In 2018, Brian Hollis pleaded guilty to one count of lewd conduct with a minor under sixteen and four counts of sexual exploitation of a child. He also admitted to being a repeat sexual offender, which mandates a fifteen-year minimum term of confinement. The district court imposed an indeterminate life sentence with twenty-five years determinate on the lewd conduct charge and concurrent determinate sentences of fifteen years for each of the sexual exploitation charges. Hollis appealed his conviction and sentence, but the Idaho Court of Appeals affirmed them.Hollis then filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The district court appointed the Kootenai County Public Defender to represent him. However, Hollis' conflict counsel filed a motion to withdraw, stating that he was no longer able to "ethically or effectively represent" Hollis due to statements made by the district court judge against conflict counsel in a similar post-conviction case. The district court denied the motion to withdraw and the motion to continue the summary disposition hearing. The district court subsequently granted the State’s motion for summary disposition, holding that Hollis had not supported any of his claims with any admissible evidence.The Supreme Court of the State of Idaho vacated the judgment of the district court, reversed the decisions on the motion to continue and motion to withdraw, vacated the decision granting summary disposition to the State, and remanded for further proceedings. The court held that the district court abused its discretion in denying the motion to withdraw and the motion to continue. The court also ordered the assignment of a new district court judge on remand. View "Hollis v. State" on Justia Law

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The defendant, Charles Geoffrey Santoro, was convicted of negligent homicide after a retrial. The case stemmed from an incident at a bar where Santoro and another patron, Levi, had a confrontation. Santoro claimed that Levi choked him, leading him to reverse his truck in an attempt to escape, which resulted in Levi being run over and killed.In the first trial, Santoro was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, with five years suspended and no parole restriction. However, this conviction was reversed by the Supreme Court of the State of Montana due to ineffective assistance of counsel.In the retrial, the District Court granted the State's motion to exclude expert testimony on the effects of strangulation, which had been admitted in the first trial. Santoro was again convicted and this time sentenced to 20 years in prison with a full 20-year parole restriction.The Supreme Court of the State of Montana found that the District Court abused its discretion by excluding the expert testimony on strangulation. The court held that this testimony was relevant and could have assisted the jury in determining whether Santoro's actions were a "gross deviation" from that of a reasonable person in Santoro's situation. The court also found that the State's enhanced sentencing recommendation after retrial was vindictive and that the District Court erred by failing to allow Santoro the opportunity to speak prior to sentencing. The court reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. View "State v. Santoro" on Justia Law

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Willie Slocum, Jr. appealed the denial of his motion to correct, vacate, or set aside his convictions and sentences based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Slocum was indicted on two counts of drug conspiracy under 21 U.S.C. § 846, but argued that the two charged conspiracies were actually one. He claimed that he was punished twice for the same conspiracy in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause, and that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to raise a double jeopardy challenge before the trial court. The district court denied his motion without ordering a response from the government or holding an evidentiary hearing.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that the district court erred in its decision. The appellate court determined that Slocum was indeed punished twice for a single conspiracy in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause. However, the court noted that it was unclear whether trial counsel had a strategic reason for failing to raise a double jeopardy challenge. The court concluded that Slocum was entitled to an evidentiary hearing under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b) where the performance of his trial counsel could be assessed. Therefore, the court vacated the district court’s denial of Slocum’s § 2255 motion and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on Slocum’s ineffective assistance claim. View "United States v. Slocum" on Justia Law

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The case involves Andrew James Keller, who pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine. Keller, representing himself, argued that the district court erred by denying his motion to withdraw his guilty plea under Wyoming Rule of Criminal Procedure (W.R.Cr.P.) 32(d) and his subsequent Wyoming Rule of Appellate Procedure (W.R.A.P.) 21 motion to withdraw his guilty plea and for a new trial due to ineffective assistance of counsel. He claimed that his public defenders had conflicts of interest and did not provide reasonably competent assistance.The district court denied Keller's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, concluding that he did not establish a fair and just reason to withdraw his guilty plea under Rule 32(d). Keller then filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea and for a new trial under W.R.A.P. 21, claiming he received ineffective assistance from his three defense attorneys. The district court denied Keller's Rule 21 motion and issued findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of its decision.The Supreme Court of Wyoming affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that Keller failed to establish that his attorneys' performance was deficient, and thus, he did not receive ineffective assistance of counsel. The court also found that Keller failed to present a fair and just reason to withdraw his guilty plea under W.R.Cr.P. 32(d). View "Keller v. The State of Wyoming" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around an applicant who pleaded guilty to causing serious bodily injury to a child. The trial court deferred finding her guilty and placed her on community supervision. However, two months later, she was adjudicated guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The applicant raised two claims in her habeas application. First, she argued that her guilty plea was involuntary because her attorney did not inform her that the victim had not suffered serious bodily injury. Second, she claimed that her attorney was ineffective at the adjudication stage for not offering evidence in support of a conviction for the lesser-included offense of causing bodily injury to a child.The trial court had recommended denying relief, but the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas found the trial court's findings to be faulty. The primary issue was whether the applicant pleaded guilty without knowing that the medical expert believed there was no serious bodily injury. The trial court found otherwise, but the Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed, finding that the defense attorney did not inform the applicant about the medical expert's opinion.The secondary issue was whether the applicant would have insisted on trial if she had known about the true state of the evidence of serious bodily injury. The Court of Criminal Appeals found that the record supported the applicant's claim that she would have insisted on trial, as she had a good chance of an acquittal of the serious bodily injury element and would have faced much less punishment without it.The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas granted relief, setting aside the judgment in the case and remanding the applicant to the custody of the Sheriff of Harrison County to face the charges against her. View "EX PARTE MICHELLE LEE HAYES" on Justia Law

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Shawn Flaherty was convicted of second-degree domestic assault and armed criminal action following a violent altercation with his wife, during which he brandished a revolver and a bullet from the weapon struck his wife in the knee. Flaherty's defense at trial was that the shooting was accidental, and his counsel requested an instruction for the lesser-included offense of second-degree domestic assault, which the jury ultimately found him guilty of. Flaherty was sentenced to seven years for the assault count and three years for the armed criminal action count, to be served consecutively. His convictions were affirmed on direct appeal.Flaherty subsequently filed a motion for postconviction relief, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request a lesser-included instruction for fourth-degree domestic assault. The motion court overruled Flaherty’s motion after an evidentiary hearing, finding that while his trial counsel's performance was constitutionally deficient for failing to request the instruction for fourth-degree domestic assault, this did not prejudice Flaherty.The Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed the motion court's judgment. The court found that there was sufficient evidence to support the motion court’s finding that counsel’s failure to request the lesser-included instruction for fourth-degree assault did not prejudice Flaherty. The court also noted that the motion court judge, who had also presided over Flaherty's criminal trial, was in a better position to assess the impact of the evidence on the jury and whether it was reasonably likely the jury would have been persuaded by arguments that Flaherty's acts were merely criminally negligent. View "Flaherty v. State" on Justia Law

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The case involves a criminal defendant, Tasi Autele, who was indicted on charges of second-degree assault and strangulation. Autele retained attorneys Mackeson and Hall to represent him. However, on the day of the trial, the court granted defense counsel's request to postpone the trial to investigate photographs that had been anonymously delivered to Hall's office. On the next scheduled trial date, the trial court granted defense counsel's request to withdraw due to an ethical conflict that would likely arise from the prosecutor's plan to cross-examine Autele about those photographs. Nine days later, the same attorneys appeared and asked to be allowed to represent Autele, but the trial court denied the request due to its concerns about a continuing ethical issue.The Court of Appeals affirmed Autele's conviction, concluding that the record was insufficient to determine whether the trial court had abused its discretion in denying Autele's request to be represented by his retained counsel. The Supreme Court of the State of Oregon reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court held that when a trial court denies a criminal defendant's request to be represented by retained counsel of their choice, the record must demonstrate that the trial court's decision was a permissible exercise of its discretion. The court found that the record in this case did not reflect that the trial court's decision amounted to a reasonable exercise of its discretion. Therefore, the court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial. View "State v. Autele" on Justia Law