Saturday, December 07, 2013

Conflicts result in ineffective assistance of counsel

Gerald Wells won in State v. Stovall, No. 100,704 (Kan. Nov. 22, 2013) obtaining a new trial in a Shawnee County rape prosecution.  The district court had denied three motions to withdraw. The KSC described the district court's action on the motions:
The district court did not hear the withdrawal motion until the sentencing hearing. Stovall's attorney told the court that her communication with Stovall had deteriorated to the point that, except for 5 minutes before the hearing, the two had not spoken since the jury's verdict 2 months prior. The attorney advised the court that Stovall had asked her to file an ineffective assistance of counsel claim on herself, which she would not do. She asked to withdraw so that the court could appoint Stovall new counsel who could effectively address his new trial and sentencing concerns, i.e., who could mount a legitimate challenge to the effectiveness of trial counsel.

Despite that articulation of a patently obvious reason for the defendant to have conflict-free counsel at that stage of the proceedings, the district court voiced a query as to how trial counsel's withdrawal at such a late stage in the process would serve Stovall's interests. Further, the court recited the non sequitur that it had denied the two prior motions to withdraw because the court did not believe the attorney had shown the conflict "arose [sic] to the level that was so material that it would cause a conflict." Inscrutably, the court also declared that the attorney should have known about and raised her issues much sooner, notwithstanding that the third motion, based on a total breakdown in communication, was filed within a month of the last attorney/client communication.
The KSC held that the district court abused its discretion by failing to consider the merits of the motions:
We have no hesitation in specifically stating that the trial court's failure to appropriately deal with defense counsel's declared conflicts of interest was an abuse of discretion. Moreover, the district court's actions in this case were an abuse of discretion for reasons other than its failure to conduct an in-depth inquiry.

As noted above, an abuse of discretion can occur when the district court is guided by an erroneous legal conclusion. The district court's reliance on KRPC 1.16(c) as a basis for denying defense counsel's motion to withdraw was legally misguided.
The KSC went on to consider whether the case fell into a category of cases that require reversal without a further showing of prejudice:
Here, defense counsel tried to explain the constraints imposed upon her by the conflicts, such as when she told the district court: "I think any time you have to point the finger at another client saying this client didn't do it, this other client did[, there is a conflict]." That dilemma is not difficult to grasp and one has to wonder whether another attorney, who owed no attorney-client duty to Pascha, would have developed a trial defense strategy implicating Pascha. Pointedly, the conflicted attorney did not do so after being forced to try the case.

Defense counsel also advised the court about the problem that was actually caused by the State when it subpoenaed her to essentially testify against Stovall in the Fulton case. As related above, the Court of Appeals described the corrosive effect that circumstance had on the attorney-client relationship. At the hearing on the third motion to withdraw, the district court opined that the subpoena conflict had not materialized, because the defense attorney had not actually testified in the Fulton case. But that observation misses the point. The attorney-client privilege is designed to secure a client's confidence in the secrecy of the communications with his or her attorney during the representation. If a client believes that the State can force his or her attorney to testify against the client, the damage to the free exchange of information between attorney and client has already been done. Moreover, it is no wonder that Stovall suspended all communication with his attorney after the trial, given that his attorney repeatedly stated in open court that she could not advocate solely for him because of duties she owed to others.

As a consequence of the adverse effect on representation created by defense counsel's conflicts of interest, Stovall was effectively denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel at trial.  
The KSC went on to note that it would have reversed on independent conflicts grounds stemming from a third motion to withdraw as well.

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