Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Don't lie to your attorney

A criminal defendant was charged with conspiracy to import heroin, and he steadfastly maintained his innocence, refusing to cooperate with the government if it meant he would have to admit his guilt. After a jury found him guilty, but prior to sentencing, another witness came forward with incriminating evidence against defendant, who then came clean with the government and admitted his guilt. He got a 121 month sentence. The case goes to the Court of Appeals because the trial court granted his habeas corpus petition on the basis that he was denied effective assistance of trial, in that the lawyer had given the defendant an overly optimistic assessment of his chances for acquittal.

The case is United States v. Pitcher, decided on March 11. The Court of Appeals takes away the habeas finding and Pitcher goes back to jail, because Pitcher lied to his attorney about his involvement in the conspiracy. Those lies affected counsel's advice about the risks of going to trial, as the lawyer testified at the habeas hearing that he would not have gone to trial had he known the truth.

For technical reasons, the district court could not grant the habeas petition as that relief contravened a prior ruling from the Court of Appeals in this case. Here's how the Court of Appeals summarizes the sequence of events:

[Counsel] explained to the court in an April 14, 1999 status conference held prior to sentencing that Pitcher, who had only recently admitted his involvement in the conspiracy, had lied to him “about significant things” related to his involvement in the conspiracy and “[h]ad I realized the defendant’s – the truth of what had actually occurred here before we went to trial, I never would have went [sic] to trial.” At the same status conference, [defendant] admitted to the court that he thought he had “a very good chance at winning” because he “didn't think [he] was guilty.” These facts make clear that [counsel] would not have given [defendant] such a “positive prognosis about his chances of winning at trial,” had Pitcher not lied to him about his involvement in the charged offenses.

If the district court's habeas order was foreclosed by a prior Court of Appeals ruling, then why did the Second Circuit issue a precedential opinion this time around? Maybe so that it could warn criminal defendants about dishonesty in the future: "Although we reverse on the grounds stated, we add that we are wary of endorsing any precedent that could enable a defendant to benefit from lying to his defense counsel or that might suggest a duty on the part of defense counsel to arm-twist a client who maintains his innocence into pleading guilty."

1 comment:

sara said...

Nice blog