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Supreme Court Takes On Case of Ineffective Counsel in Murder Plea

Last year, in a landmark case called Lafler v. Cooper, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that criminal defendants whose cases are resolved through a plea bargain can appeal convictions on the grounds that they were denied the assistance of effective legal counsel. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees all criminal defendants the right to effective counsel and, as the court pointed out in that case, 95 percent of all criminal cases are handled through guilty pleas.

This week, the court agreed to hear one of the first appeals brought under that theory. The case involves the Michigan homicide conviction of a transgender man accused of conspiring with his aunt in 2000 to murder his rich uncle so he could use his portion of the inheritance for a sex-change operation.

According to the appeal, prosecutors offered the man a deal in which he would plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter in exchange for a prison term of 7 to 15 years. The defendant had accepted the deal, but his criminal defense lawyer urged him to withdraw that plea and go to trial.

Unfortunately, at trial he was convicted of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison. Apparently, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit determined on appeal, despite that attorney's gung ho attitude toward the trial, he did not investigate the case before he made that recommendation. If he had, said the appellate court, the attorney would or should have recommended that the defendant take the offered plea agreement.

The State of Michigan has appealed the decision, presumably arguing that if a defendant can turn down a favorable plea agreement and then, upon receiving a harsher outcome at trial, take his guilty plea back, there will be no purpose in having plea agreements in the first place. Nineteen other states filed friend of the court briefs in support of Michigan's position.

The appeal will be heard in the Supreme Court's next term, which means sometime between October of this year and June 2014.

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight, "Supreme Court to hear claim over withdrawn guilty plea," Jonathan Stempel and Lawrence Hurley, Feb. 25, 2013