Recently in Counsel Category

More Resources for Indigent Defense

| No Comments
One of the excuses we hear for supposedly innocent defendants' supposedly being "railroaded" into jail is that indigent defense is too resource-starved to fight off rapacious prosecutors and their fabricated charges.

All that is baloney, with one exception.  We should indeed devote more resources to indigent defense.  The country is not going get a high quality legal system without paying for it. Adults need to understand this.

But hold on:  There's a way to provide it without raising taxes or more binge borrowing. The way is to draft lawyers to fulfill their obligations to the community that gives them their licenses.

I have suggested this before, but I find that I have a new and prominent ally  -- Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  Her remarks are reported by the National Law Journal:  "Sotomayor Urges Mandatory Pro Bono for All Lawyers."
Lance Rogers of BNA Criminal Law Reporter has this article on the U.S. Supreme Court's March 30 decision in Luis v. United States regarding pretrial freezing of assets of the defendant not directly related to the crime but forfeitable in substitution for tainted but expended assets.  The court held that such assets cannot be frozen when the defendant needs them to pay her lawyer.  See also my previous post.

USCA6 Summarily Reversed Yet Again

The "massive resistance" of some federal judges (particularly in circuits divisible by 3) continues, and today the U.S. Supreme Court found it necessary once again to summarily reverse a decision of Sixth Circuit for brazenly exceeding the limits Congress has placed on its authority.

In 1996, Congress decided that the opinion of the lower federal courts on disputed questions of federal law was really not more reliable than the opinions of the state courts.  Too many correct judgments were being wrongly overturned, and the Supreme Court could not correct all the errors.  Yet Congress was not willing to let go of the safety valve of federal habeas corpus review of state convictions altogether.  The compromise was that federal courts could overturn a state conviction based on a claim rejected on the merits by the state courts if the state court decision was clearly wrong, beyond the bounds of reasonable disagreement.  If the issue is arguable, the state court decision stands.

Many federal judges are unwilling to let go of their prerogative to substitute their opinions for those of state judges on close questions, and they regularly violate the law governing the limits of their authority in order to "correct" what they see as violations of other rules of law.  The highest-profile incidents tend to be in capital cases, but it occurs in noncapital cases as well, and that brings us to today's Supreme Court decision in Woods v. Etherton, No. 15-723.
Today the U.S. Supreme Court decided Luis v. United States, No. 14-419.  Justice Breyer's plurality opinion begins:

A federal statute provides that a court may freeze before trial certain assets belonging to a criminal defendant accused of violations of federal health care or banking laws. See 18 U. S. C. §1345. Those assets include: (1) property "obtained as a result of " the crime, (2) property "traceable" to the crime, and (3) other "property of equivalent value." §1345(a)(2). In this case, the Government has obtained a court order that freezes assets belonging to the third category of property, namely, property that is untainted by the crime, and that belongs fully to the defendant. That order, the defendant says, prevents her from paying her lawyer. She claims that insofar as it does so, it violates her Sixth Amendment "right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for [her] defence." We agree.
Justice Thomas concurred in this result, making the decision 5-3.
...are engaged in their own, ummmmm, zealous work, as explained in this WSJ Law Blog story concerning prominent criminal defense attorney Robert Simels:

The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Simels' 2009 convictions on attempted obstruction of justice and bribery, and the 14-year-prison sentence given to him by U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn, but vacated his conviction on two counts relating to importation and possession of electronic surveillance equipment.

Simels' lawyers didn't respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for federal prosecutors in Brooklyn said they were still reviewing the decision and would not comment.

Simels...was convicted in connection with an attempt to tamper with a witness against his client Shaheed Khan, a cocaine trafficker from Guyana who ultimately pleaded guilty to charges in the U.S. Prosecutors in Brooklyn made a case against Simels, who was retained by Khan for $1.4 million, in part with help from a federal informant connected to the drug trafficker, who taped meetings with the attorney.

There are two points to be remembered from this story.  One is the criminal defense bar is not the uniformly pristine, Knight-on-a-White-Horse, Constitution-shielding sentinel its PR machine portrays.  There are bad actors among defense lawyers, just as there are among Brady-hiding prosecutors and gun-happy cops.  Every profession has its bad apples, and defense lawyers, notwithstanding their gentle treatment in the press, are right in there with everyone else.  It's just more popular, and politically more rewarding, to bash cops and prosecutors, which is why it gets done more often and more loudly.  By contrast, no one ever got a piece in Salon, or tenure for that matter, doing a dissertation about the wonderfulness of cops.

The second point is this Simels story, like the Mike Nifong story, is easy to bullhorn all over town to drive whatever one's agenda might be.  If you take the worst one-half of one percent of ANY profession's behavior and repeat it in 30 blogs, 10 op-ed's and 5 network broadcasts, you can make that profession out to be a cesspool.  It's my impression that Radley Balko does exactly that in his obsession with the police.

But it's cheap and misleading.  If you want to know what defense lawyers, prosecutors and cops act like, it's easy to find out: Go to your local court and sit there for a week watching random cases.

It's possible you'll see people who left good faith far behind, and put out every slick argument they think they might get away with.  But I doubt it.  I suspect you'll see what I did for about 20 years  --  able and almost always honest advocacy.  Counsel see cases from different angles, sure; our system is designed so that they will.   But only through a dark, tiny and distorted lens will you see any segment of the legal profession in the light in which Mr. Balko, for example, presents the police.

I am not an optimist by nature, but I can tell you from long experience in litigation that the grim picture of competing thugs and cheaters we see painted in so many places simply is not true.

Find out for yourself  --  visit that courtroom.

The Defense Bar, At It Again

To clear out the underbrush at the outset:  No, I do not think defendants should go without counsel.  Yes, I think counsel should be zealous.  But no, being zealous does not include disrespecting the considered wishes of the client, or misleading the court or jury about the client's mental state.  

On Wednesday, Robert Dear, who murdered three people including a police officer at an abortion clinic in Colorado, "blurted out," as the press likes to put these things, the truth:  ""I am guilty, [I want] no trial. I am a warrior for the babies!"

The Denver Post story goes on to recount that Dear is a "deeply religious man" and "conflicted."  I have no doubt of this, although I wish he had been "conflicted" enough to stand down from murder and try some different "remedy," such as, for example, explaining to abortion providers why he believes they are horribly wrong and should stop.

My focus, however, is not on Dear, but on his defense lawyers, including lead public defender Daniel King.  Public defenders, like all other defense counsel, are employed to advance the interests of the client as the client sees them, not as the lawyer sees them.  Apparently this does not apply in Colorado.

More Remuneration for Defense Counsel

| No Comments
I agree with the defense bar more often than it (and sometimes, I) feel comfortable about, but what can I say? The NACDL is right in believing, among other things, that custodial police questioning should be videotaped, prison conditions improved, and defense lawyers better paid.

Better paid, yes, but not like this.

And before the yelping starts, let me say up front that this is an unusual case for sure  --  but no more unusual than the prosecutor's sending some bedeviled defendant away for 50 years by hiding Brady material, something defense blogs portray as an everyday occurrence.

Yes, yes, the great majority of prosecutors and defense lawyers are honest people, so far as I have reason to believe.  But it does annoy me when the ideological element of the defense bar gets on its high horse, proclaiming that it alone defends the Constitution, while mean-spirited prosecutors come to their offices aiming to tear it up.  The main problem with this stuff is not that it's so false; it's that it's so stultifying.

It was bearing in mind this Holier-than-Thou, We-Are-the-Guardians-of-the-Law attitude that made me laugh when I came to this paragraph in the story about "how defense counsel gets paid:"

The second [client] also knew Benavides from a previous relationship, said the affidavit. During one of her court cases, Benavides approached her and said he knew the judge and could get her an attorney's bond and a fair deal. She hired him, and after she bonded out of jail, Benavides asked her to meet him at a friend's office. Whenever they met there, they would have sex. Once, they had sex in a jury room in the courthouse.

Justice Waits While Lawyers Bicker

| No Comments
SL&P has this story suggesting that the main problem in a Texas multiple child murder case from more than 15 years ago is that  --  ready now?  --  the defendant's lawyers aren't being aggressive enough in pushing a last minute clemency appeal. The story's first eight paragraphs amount to a hit on the killer's present counsel for declining to push the 16th year of litigation into the 17th (and beyond, I suppose).

You will not be surprised to hear that the story does not (1) advance any claim of factual innocence; (2) detail the prior multiple efforts to reverse the sentence, or (3) explain any plausible grounds for either judicial or executive hesitation at this late date.  It's basically a hit piece on lawyers who decline to game the system out to infinity.

In that sense, it's an apt display of what's wrong with the administration of the death penalty, and of the insufferable self-importance of lawyers.  It never seems to occur to the people quoted in the article that legal outcomes should depend on the behavior of the parties, not the behavior of the attorneys.

Still, far, far down the page, we get our first glimpse into what the case is actually about:

Holiday [the petitioner] was convicted of intentionally setting fire to his wife's home near College Station in September 2000, killing her three little girls. He forced the children's grandmother to douse the home in gasoline. After igniting the fumes, Holiday watched from outside as flames engulfed the couch where authorities later found the corpses of 7-year-old Tierra Lynch, 5-year-old Jasmine DuPaul and 1-year-old Justice Holiday huddled together. Volberding and Kretzer were appointed in February 2011 to represent Holiday in his federal appeals. They filed a 286-page petition in federal court, alleging dozens of mistakes in Holiday's case, ranging from assertions that he was intellectually disabled to charges that clemency is so rarely granted in Texas that the process has become meaningless....

Oh, OK.  The problem is not that lawyers file absurd claims for years.  The problem is that at some point, they stop.
The Constitution guarantees counsel for defendants, but what does that mean beyond appointment of a person who is a member of the bar?  Will a hopeless incompetent who does nothing for the client do?  No.  Is an absolutely perfect performance that no one can find the slightest flaw in, even in hindsight, required?  No.  Where do we draw the line between those two extremes?  It's complicated.

The standard was set in the landmark case of Strickland v. Washington (1984), a case won by my good friend Carolyn Snurkowski of the Florida AG's Office.  As summarized by the Supreme Court today in Maryland v. Kulbicki, "Counsel is unconstitutionally ineffective if his performance is both deficient,meaning his errors are 'so serious' that he no longer functions as 'counsel,' and prejudicial, meaning his errors deprive the defendant of a fair trial."

No longer functioning as counsel is a very low standard, a performance so dismal that very few such claims should be granted, and the bar should proceed to revoke the license or at least impose some discipline on any lawyer who actually botches a client's case that badly.  That is how it was intended, but that is not how it is applied in practice.  Instead, courts often use ineffectiveness claims as ways to overturn verdicts they feel uncomfortable about, even though the lawyer actually did a decent job.

Today in Kulbicki, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a decision of the highest court of Maryland in severe terms.   "Applying this standard in name only, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that James Kulbicki's defense attorneys were unconstitutionally ineffective. We summarily reverse."

Georgia Completes Execution

| 1 Comment
NBC News has this story, just breaking:

A Georgia woman who was executed despite a plea for mercy from Pope Francis sang "Amazing Grace" until as she was given a lethal injection, witnesses said.

Kelly Renee Gissendaner was put to death at 12:21 a.m. Wednesday after a flurry of last-minute appeals failed.

Gissendaner, who was sentenced to death for the 1997 stabbing murder of her husband at the hands of her lover, sobbed as she called the victim an "amazing man who died because of me."

Particularly noteworthy was this paragraph later in the article:

In the hours before her death, Gissendaner pressed a number of appeals, arguing that it was not fair she got death while the lover who killed her husband got a life sentence. She also said the execution drugs might be defective, and that she had turned her life around and found religion while in prison.

I must be missing the argument there that could not have been made many years before last night.  It strikes me that the time has long since come to sanction lawyers who intentionally clog the courts and make a spectacle of legal process by bad faith, last-minute, kitchen-sink appeals.


Stumbling across unconscious self-parody is one of the hazards of reading the news, and today it struck big time. The NACDL has come out with a "report" titled, "Federal Indigent Defense 2015: The Independence Imperative."  The press release (called a "news release") starts with this:

Washington, DC (Sept. 9, 2015) - After over 18 months of study, more than 130 individuals interviewed (including federal judges, federal defenders, Criminal Justice Act (CJA) panel attorneys, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) personnel, and others, representing 49 states and all federal judicial circuits), hundreds of documents reviewed, and surveys conducted, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) today officially releases a major report -- Federal Indigent Defense 2015: The Independence Imperative. The report, adopted by NACDL's Board of Directors at its recent annual meeting, reflects the significant work of NACDL's Task Force on Federal Indigent Defense and offers "Seven Fundamentals of a Robust Federal Indigent Defense System," which are set forth below.

You will not be shocked to learn that the "seven fundamentals" can easily be summarized in two words.  More moola.  What exactly this has to do with "independence" is not so clear, except that it's less embarrassing to say you want "more independence" than that you want "more moola" (although there is a degree of "independence" demanded, i.e., independence from much judicial supervision of how much money gets handed out).

How to put an honest assessment of this "report?"

Ask Not What Your Dog Can Do for You...

| No Comments
I've done my share of criticizing the criminal defense bar, but I understand that it's indispensable to justice.

Most of the time, in my experience, when the defense chooses to go to trial, what you're going to see is a dust storm designed to obscure the defendant's, shall we say, unfortunate behavior.  But make no mistake, there are times when defense counsel does heroic work in exposing gutter-level tactics by the prosecution.  I posted about one recently, and of course I noted (who didn't?) defense counsel's spectacular work dismantling the government's fake and, frankly, racist case against several members of the Duke lacrosse team.

Still, I had to laugh when I saw the story of one defense lawyer up to the old tricks. The case was about Martha Shoffner, one time Arkansas State Treasurer, who had her hand out for bribes from those who wanted a piece of the state's bond business. She made off with a paltry $36,000 for her trouble.

At sentencing:

[Defense attorney Chuck] Banks asked the court to show mercy on Shoffner, saying she "made a terrible, terrible error in judgment" and characterizing her as "gullible" and "clueless." He said that she was inclined to accept the bribes from Stephens in large part because she was in a bad financial situation, having underestimated the cost of commuting on a regular basis between Newport and Little Rock.

Banks asked Holmes to consider Shoffner's "good deeds," including her work for the Humane Society. He presented the court with a picture of her dog, Fred, and said he was moved by the fact that after Shoffner was first arrested, she asked Banks to call her sister to check on Fred.

I practiced in federal court for many years, and it never occurred to me that I could advance the ball by citing anyone's dog.  For that matter, it still hasn't.

Homeless, Therefore Start Shooting

| No Comments
While decent people are outraged by prosecutorial lying, no one even bats an eyelash when defense counsel spin their yarns.  It's what they do.  The basics are easy:  The client is almost always guilty; telling the truth is thus the fast road to jail; therefore make something up.  That's how it works.  Whether it should work that way is another matter, but that is for a different entry.

This is by way of introducing today's AP story about the Jihadist who attempted, but was foiled at, mass murder on a French train. Kent wrote about it here and here.  The would-be killer, Ayoub El-Khazzani, has now lawyered up.  Counsel's name is Sophie David, and this is what she has to say:

"He is dumbfounded that his action is being characterized as terrorism," said [Ms.] David, a lawyer in Arras, where the train was rerouted to arrest El-Khazzani -- now being questioned outside Paris by anti-terrorism police.
He described himself as homeless and David said she had "no doubt" this was true, saying he was "very, very thin" as if suffering from malnutrition and "with a very wild look in his eyes."

For sure.  When you're homeless, the thing to do is grab an assault rifle and go to town.  Why would anyone think otherwise?

But wait, there's more.

Texas Executes "Volunteer"

| No Comments
Michael Graczyk reports for AP:

Texas inmate Daniel Lee Lopez got his wish Wednesday when he was executed for striking and killing a police lieutenant with an SUV during a chase more than six years ago.

The lethal injection was carried out after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals from his attorneys who disregarded both his desire to die and lower court rulings that Lopez was competent to make that decision.

In April, the Fifth Circuit noted, while dismissing the appeal:

Lopez is as resolute that Texas should carry out his capital sentence as he is that no counsel deprive him of that choice. The district court, after ascertaining competency, nonetheless granted Lopez's "motion to dismiss counsel, effective on the conclusion of any appeal." (Emphasis added). This court does not address, because the State did not raise, the appropriateness of our considering this appeal by counsel who were appointed for petitioner by the district court against his will, and who have filed this appeal despite his wishes and despite the court's resolution of the Rees v. Payton, 384 U.S. 312 (1966) issue. Cf. Sanchez-Velasco v. Sec. of the Dept. of Corrections, 287 F.3d 1015 (11th Cir. 2002).

The general rule is that the client sets the goals of representation and the lawyer makes the tactical decisions on how to achieve them.  Can a lawyer ethically decide on his own that the client is mentally incompetent and take it upon himself to set the goals of representation?  I don't think so, but it's an issue that needs to be settled.

I also do not think that the court can pass on the issue merely because the state did not raise it.  Does a court have jurisdiction to overturn, or even stay, a judgment that neither party to the original case wants disturbed?  No one else has standing, the Supreme Court has said, and standing is a jurisdictional requirement. 

It seems to me that unless and until a court has determined that the inmate is mentally incapable of making the decisions that belong to the client in the attorney-client relationship, and appointed someone to make them on his behalf, nobody including the lawyer can legally take it upon himself to make those decisions.

I learned of this today:

An Ad Hoc Committee to conduct a comprehensive and impartial review of the administration and operation of the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) has begun accepting public comments at the following address: It also is anticipated that in the course of its work the committee will hold public hearings.

The CJA was enacted to create a system for providing defense services to financially eligible federal criminal defendants. It became effective fifty years ago this year. Judicial Conference policy supports a periodic, comprehensive, and impartial review of the CJA program.

My own view is that those who undertake CJA defense are, on the whole, quite good, and earn all they get if not more.  I also think, however, that if we can afford more for the defense of criminals, we can afford more to keep them, after conviction, incarcerated and away from the public.

The constant refrain that "we just don't have the money for prison" is tripe. The BOP budget, like every aspect of the federal government's budget, is less a description of fiscal reality than of political priorities.  If this Administration wanted to shift its priorities toward keeping the crime rate low (rather than, for example, funding its gargantuan clemency initiative), it could easily do so.  And should.

Monthly Archives