Criminals take lawyers to court
The Supreme Court of the United States has heard arguments from two convicted criminals who say they ended up in far worse positions than they would have been because of dodgy advice from their
The Supreme Court of the United States has heard arguments from two convicted criminals who say they ended up in far worse positions than they would have been because of dodgy advice from their lawyers.
The New York Times reports that the cases, heard last week, involved defendants who had failed to accept what turned out to be rather attractive plea bargains - all because of their lawyers.
The first case involved a certain Mr Frye who was charged with driving without a license in 2007. A prosecutor initially offered to let him plead guilty in exchange for a 90-day sentence.
Frye's lawyer, however, failed to tell his client about the offer and, after it expired, Frye pleaded guilty, the prosecutor went to town, and Frye was sentenced to three years in prison.
An appeals court reversed the conviction but said it was "powerless" to ask prosecutors to revive the old plea bargain. Instead, the court said Frye could either plead guilty again or have the matter go to trial.
For Frye, that was not a terribly good option, as was pointed out by the Supreme Court's Justice Alito Jr, a former prosecutor, who said that proving a defendant was driving with a revoked license was a "slam-dunk trial".
The second case considered was that of Anthony Cooper, whose lawyer told him not to plead guilty to assault with intent to murder - despite the fact he shot a woman four times.
His overly-confident lawyer, Brian McClain, said conviction was "impossible" because the bullets had struck the woman below her waist (McClain has obviously watched one too many episodes of CSI).
He persuaded Cooper to turn down an offer of four to seven years in the slammer. Unfortunately, Cooper took the advice and will now be staring at the ceiling of his prison cell for the next 15 to 30 years.
In both cases, the Supreme Court's Justice Breyer said there may be some circumstances in which concerns about fairness required courts to order that earlier and more favourable plea offers be reinstituted.
In Cooper's case, he wondered what should happen if a defendant copped a 50-year sentence after initially rejecting a two-year plea deal, especially where "the misbehavior of the lawyer is crystal clear".
In Frye's case, Breyer wondered about depriving "a person of his liberty for 40 years instead of six months because the lawyer ... fell down on the basic, fundamental, obvious duty of communicating the relevant plea agreement".
However, Justice Scalia concluded that trying to solve either problem would leave the courts "in the soup", because Cooper had, after all, received a fair trial, and Frye had entered a perfectly valid guilty plea.
And, as Justice Kennedy pointed out, challenging this would just not be cricket.
"You are saying it was unfair to have a fair trial?" he asked Cooper's lawyer.