Friday, January 25, 2013

Capital murder conviction reversed for IAC

Paul R. Oller and John Val Wachtel won in State v. Cheatham, No. 95,800 (Kan. Jan. 25, 2013), obtaining a new trial in a capital guilt phase based on ineffective assistance of counsel.  On appeal, the KSC remanded for IAC findings (blogged about here).  The state had already conceded that Mr. Cheatham was entitled to a new penalty-phase trial (blogged about here), but the district court had held on remand that, although counsel's trial performance was deficient, Mr. Cheatham had not shown sufficient prejudice with regard to the guilt-phase.  The KSC disagreed.  Here is its summary:
We hold that trial counsel's representation denied Cheatham the fair trial he is guaranteed by both the federal and state constitutions. Specifically, we hold that counsel's performance was deficient in several respects, which were most seriously problematic when he volunteered to the jury that Cheatham had a prior voluntary manslaughter conviction and referred repeatedly to his client as a "professional drug dealer" and "shooter of people." This denied Cheatham his right to a fair trial. We hold further that under the circumstances in this case counsel's fee arrangement created an actual conflict of interest that adversely affected the adequacy of Cheatham's defense. We reverse his convictions and remand the case for a new trial.
I will leave to the reader to check out case for the details of the deficiencies that caused even the district court to comment that the defense trial attorney "had no business taking on a death penalty case." But at the end of the day, Mr. Cheatham will receive a new guilt-phase trial.

Here is a Topeka Capital-Journal article where the DA laments having to retry Mr. Cheatham.  It's sort of an interesting question.  Does the state or the trial court have any responsibility to ensure that a defendant is getting a fair trial in conformity with the law?  If the DA sees an attorney that is painfully and obviously providing ineffective assistance of counsel, does that DA have any duty to do anything about it?  Or should they simply take advantage of it and hope it does result in reversal later?  Could the trial court have done anything about it?

Here is coverage in the Hutchinson News.

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