In its 2011-2012 Term, the United States Supreme Court decided four significant criminal cases concerning the right to effective assistance of counsel. All of these decisions were decided in favor of petitioners challenging their convictions and sentences.
Maples v. Thomas - Abandonment by Counsel
On January 18, 2012, the Court found in favor of Cory Maples, an Alabama death row prisoner whose lawyers missed the statute of limitations deadline to appeal the denial of his state habeas petition. Mr. Maples learned that his petition had been denied weeks after the deadline passed. Two young associates at a New York law firm represented Mr. Maples pro bono and assisted him in filing his state post-conviction petition but both left the firm to take new employment without informing Mr. Maples or the court. When his petition was denied, the notice of the decision that was mailed to the firm was returned unopened since the attorneys were no longer with the firm, and the court clerk took no further action. Applying agency principles, the Court held that Mr. Maples was effectively abandoned by his lawyers, a finding that meant Mr. Maples would have a new opportunity to raise critical issues and evidence necessary to challenge his conviction and sentence. The Court’s decision was a departure from prior holdings that defendants must bear all consequences of their attorneys’ actions and mistakes, even when it results in their execution.
Martinez v. Ryan - Mistakes of Appellate Counsel May Be Excused
On March 20, 2012, the Court issued a decision in favor of another prisoner whose lawyer failed him. Luis Martinez’s appellate counsel failed to allege ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims in his state post-conviction proceedings, despite Arizona’s requirement that such claims must be raised in these proceedings. When Mr. Martinez tried to argue the merits of those claims during federal habeas proceedings, the court refused to hear them because his lawyer had not first presented them to the state court as required. On review, the Supreme Court first declined to hold that there was a federal constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel in state post-conviction proceedings. But the Court acknowledged that in circumstances such as these, when counsel in state post-conviction proceedings made mistakes that would ordinarily preclude review of trial counsel’s performance, there may be good cause to excuse the mistake and consider the claims in federal habeas proceedings. The Court’s rationale was that challenges to the performance of trial counsel are needed to ensure the meaningful assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.
Missouri v. Frye & Lafler v. Cooper - Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel in Plea Negotiations
On March 21, 2012, the Court issued two decisions in companion cases that extended the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel to plea bargaining cases. In the first case, Galin Frye was charged with felony driving without a license after several repeat offenses. The State offered to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor with maximum jail time of one year in exchange for a guilty plea—an offer that was not relayed to Mr. Frye by his attorney. As a result, the offer expired without Mr. Frye ever knowing of its existence. Mr. Frye later pled guilty without any agreement with the State, and he was sentenced to three years in prison. He later requested relief on the basis that his lawyer should have told him of the plea. The Court agreed, and held that the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel does include plea negotiations. Defendants who seek relief will need to satisfy the test in Strickland v. Washington, which requires that prisoners demonstrate both that counsel performed deficiently and that the defendant was prejudiced by the deficient performance. In order to show prejudice in the context of plea negotiations, the Court held that a defendant must show a reasonable probability that: 1) he would have accepted the offer had it been made known to him; 2) acceptance of the offer would have resulted in a less severe sentence; 3) the state would not have withdrawn or changed the offer; and 4) the trial court would have sentenced him according to the agreement.
In the companion case to Missouri v. Frye, the Court held in Lafler v. Cooper that if a plea bargain is offered, a criminal defendant has a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel when evaluating the offer. Anthony Cooper had been charged with attempted murder for shooting a woman in her buttocks and leg. The prosecution offered him a reduced sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, but Mr. Cooper’s attorney advised against taking it, erroneously instructing him that he could not be convicted of attempted murder because the victim was shot below the waist. In reliance on his attorney’s advice, Mr. Cooper rejected the offer and went to trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to a term 3.5 times longer than the sentence offered in the plea bargain. The Court held that a criminal defendant has a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel during the plea bargaining stage. Applying the factors announced in the Frye decision, the Court found that Mr. Cooper had been prejudiced by his attorney’s deficient performance. The Court remanded the case for further proceedings to determine the appropriate remedy, and in doing so, gave broad discretion to trial courts to determine a new sentence where a violation is found.