March 2012

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with Colin O’Keefe of LXBN TV on the latest developments in the Trayvon Martin case. In the short interview I give a brief explanation on the background of the case, touch on Florida’s unique “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law and compare the situation to two past cases that were similar and also received a significant amount of national media attention: the Duke lacrosse case and the Bernie Getz case.

Today, the Supreme Court released two opinions that define standards for defense lawyers during criminal plea bargains.

First, in Lafler v. Cooper, No. 10-209, 566 U.S. ___ (2012), recall that Cooper was charged with assault with intent to murder and possession of a firearm. Cooper rejected a plea bargain after his attorney (wrongly) informed him that the state could not prove intent to murder since the shots were fired below the waist. Cooper was later convicted after a trial and received a harsher sentence than the original plea bargain.

In a five to four decision, the Court vacated the lower court’s decision and held: “Where counsel’s ineffective advice led to an offer’s rejection, and where the prejudice alleged is having to stand trial, a defendant must show that but for the ineffective advice, there is a reasonable probability that the plea offer would have been presented to the court, that the court that the court would have accepted its terms, and that the conviction or sentence, or both, under the offer’s terms would have been less severe than under the actual judgment and sentence imposed.”

Justice Kennedy, relying on Missouri v. Frye, an opinion also released today, explained that:

“the right to adequate assistance of counsel cannot be defined or enforced without taking into account of the central role plea bargaining plays in securing convictions and determining sentences.”

Justice Kennedy was supported by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan.

Next, in Missouri v. Frye, No. 10-444, Frye was not informed of favorable plea offers before he pled guilty to driving with a revoked license. He was later sentenced to three years in prison—a sentence much harsher than the plea offers.

In another split decision, the Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel extends to the consideration of plea offers that lapse or are rejected, and applies to “all ‘critical’ stages of the criminal proceedings.”

This holding concerned Justice Scalia, who was joined in his dissent by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito: “While the inadequacy of counsel’s performance in this case is clear enough, whether it was prejudicial (in the sense that the Court’s new version of Strickland requires) is not. The Court’s description of how that question is to be answered on remand is alone enough to show how unwise it is to constitutionalize the plea-bargaining process.”

In addition to written opposition to the Court’s holding, Justice Scalia reportedly gave an oral dissent, referring to the majority decision as “absurd” and “unheard-of.”

In short, both decisions clearly recognize a Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel at the plea bargaining stage, even though there is no constitutional right to a plea bargain.

On Tuesday, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a Fulton man’s convictions would be reversed due to an improperly worded verdict form. Cheddersingh v. State, S11A1929.

In 2008, Soniel Cheddersingh was convicted of malice murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and possession of firearm by a convicted felon. At trial, the jury was given as set of written jury instructions, including a preprinted verdict form. The verdict form stated: “As to the offense of Murder (O.C.G.A. § 16-15-1), we the Jury unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt find the Defendant _______.” Below the blank space were the words “Guilty or Not Guilty.” The remaining charges were formatted similarly.

The Court held that the verdict form erroneously instructed jurors that to find the defendant not guilty, they had to do so “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This error would mislead jurors about the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof, and could cause a reasonable juror to believe that the defendant has the burden of proving his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. Despite proper oral instructions by the judge prior to jury deliberations, as well as sufficient evidence against the defendant, the Court reversed all of Cheddersingh’s charges. Justice Hines, writing for the Court, reasoned that:

“The presumption of innocence is fundamental to a fair trial and a conviction resulting from a procedure in which the trial court misinformed the jury regarding that presumption affects not only the fairness of that proceeding itself, but public confidence in the judicial process as a whole.”

According to one report, it is unclear how many verdicts were potentially contaminated by the erroneous verdict form.

This case reminds appellate lawyers of a few important points:

  • Look for issues everywhere. Even in the boring pattern jury instructions and verdict forms. This part of the analysis is always tedious to me, but it’s necessary.
  • If it seems too simple to be true, it still might be an issue. I can’t help but wonder how many other lawyers overlooked the issue in Cheddersingh because it was so obvious.
  • When reading jury instructions and other materials given to the jury, analyze them as though you are not a lawyer. Everyone who went to law school knows that the burden of proof is on the State, not a criminal defendant, but lay people don’t always know this, which accounts for the holding in this case. Make sure that the jury instructions give all of the elements of the offense and cannot be construed to mean something other than what the law allows.
  • Double check all of your pending appeals for erroneous jury instructions and verdict forms (if you haven’t already).