The other argument before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, Burt v. Titlow, involves a sensational murder case, and a possible important precedent for defendants who get questionable advice from lawyers.
During the Supreme Court hears arguments this week, the spotlight will be on the McCutcheon case and its implications for campaign spending. But Titlow will also address the issue of fairness, which is at the case’s heart, even though it is clouded by colorful facts that the parties can’t agree on.
Here are the basics in this complicated case that involves murder, a plea bargain that was withdrawn, and a defendant who got a much-longer jail sentence based on questionable legal tactics.
Vonlee Nicole Titlow is a man who has long lived as a woman and was convicted of second-degree murder for helping the wife of her wealthy uncle kill him in 2000—and then taking $100,000 in gifts and cash from the wife who was the sole beneficiary of her late husband’s estate, to keep quiet about the murder.
The case’s basis came from when Titlow’s boyfriend wore a recording device on a date with Titlow, and Titlow described the crime.
Titlow’s first lawyer got the trials for the two defendants separated and negotiated a plea agreement for Titlow for a sentence of from 7 to 15 years in prison.
But a deputy sheriff where Titlow was jailed said Titlow shouldn’t plead guilty if Titlow was innocent and helped get the defendant new counsel.
A month after the initial plea, Titlow withdrew it through the new counsel. But the lawyer never looked at the defendant’s case file, never reviewed the evidence against Titlow, and never did any investigation about the facts—including about the recorded conversation in which Titlow said she felt guilty “for killing” her uncle.
After accepting jewelry and the rights to Titlow’s story as payment, the new counsel withdrew from the case. By then, however, Titlow’s plea was also withdrawn and a different lawyer represented her at trial. She was convicted and sentenced to from 20 to 40 years in jail for second-degree murder.
Titlow lost appeals in two state courts in Michigan, but the Sixth Circuit reversed, saying, “The Michigan Court of Appeals' conclusion that her second attorney was not deficient when he advised Titlow to withdraw the plea agreement negotiated by her first attorney was unreasonable because the record reflects that the second attorney totally failed to investigate her case prior to recommending that she withdraw the guilty plea."
The appeals court reversed the Michigan decisions, and gave the state 90 days to re-offer Titlow the original plea agreement or, failing that, to release her.
The Supreme Court accepted the case and asked the lawyers to address three questions.
The first question was whether the Sixth Circuit failed to give appropriate deference to a Michigan state court under Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
The second question was whether a convicted defendant’s subjective testimony that she would have accepted a plea but for ineffective assistance, is standing alone, and sufficient to demonstrate a reasonable probability that defendant would have accepted the plea.
The third question was whether Lafler v. Cooper always requires a state trial court to resentence a defendant who shows a reasonable probability that she would have accepted a plea offer but for ineffective assistance, and to do so in such a way as to “remedy” the violation of the defendant’s constitutional right.
The Lafler case was decided in March 2012 along with a case called Missouri v. Frye. A split Court in a 5-4 decision said that criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel during plea bargain talks, including plea bargains based on bad legal advice.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion. Justice Antonin Scalia offered a fiery dissent, saying that the majority opinion would cause “retrospective crystal-ball gazing posing as legal analysis.”
If the Titlow case doesn’t sound convoluted enough, you can read an analysis of the debate over the facts from Rory Little at SCOTUSblog.
The facts in dispute, says Little, include how to address Titlow’s gender, when did Titlow withdraw her first plea, and how much advice did she get about dropping the plea.
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