Monday, December 13, 2010

Can a Defense Counsel Validly Concede Guilt to One or More Counts Over the Defendant’s Objection?

In People v Colville (2010 NY Slip Op 07185 [2nd Dept. Oct 5, 2010]) the Second Department, without reaching a decision on the issue, engaged in detailed review of the arguments as to whether the decision to submit a lesser included offense is a fundamental one that must be made by the defendant or is a strategic one that can be made by counsel. The Colville court noted that courts have split on this issue, which has not yet been addressed by the New York Court of Appeals. On this issue the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in People v Taylor (2 AD3d 1306 [4th Dept 2003]) held that "defendant was not denied his right to make a “fundamental decision[ ]” (internal citation omitted) when the court considered a lesser included offense charge after discussing the issue with defense counsel and the prosecutor, without input from defendant.”

What about the related issue of whether defense counsel may validly concede guilt to one of more counts over the defendant’s objection? One might think that such a concession is effectively no different than a guilty plea, and the decision whether to plead guilty is fundamental one for the defendant and not counsel (Jones v Barnes, 463 U.S. 745 [1983]; People v White, 73 NY2d 468 [1989]). Under such reasoning it would seem clear that counsel cannot make such a concession over the objection of the defendant. That position was recently rejected by the Court in Washington v Poole (_F Supp_, 2010 WL 3910176 (WDNY 10/6/10), in denying a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in which Mr. Washington urged that he was denied effective assistance of counsel when his counsel, over Mr. Washington’s objection, conceded Washington was involved in the robbery but disputed whether the handguns used during the robbery were “loaded and operable” so as to make Washington guilty of robbery in the first degree. The Court explained that

In Florida v Nixon, 543 US 175 (2004), the Supreme Court indicated that while defense counsel has an obligation to explain to the defendant a proposed strategy of conceding guilt at the guilt phase of a capital trial, counsel has no further obligation to obtain the defendant's express consent to this strategy. Id. at 189. In Nixon, during the guilt phase of a capital trial, the defense attorney conceded that his client had committed the murder. The strategy there was to establish credibility with the jury by conceding the murder, and then to seek leniency at the sentencing phase. However, the defendant was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. The state appellate court in Nixon reversed the defendant's conviction and held that trial counsel's concession of guilt, without defendant's express consent, deprived the defendant of his right to the effective assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment....The United States Supreme Court reversed. First, the Nixon court expressly rejected the proposition-also urged by petitioner here-that a concession of guilt is the functional equivalent of a guilty plea requiring the consent of the accused on the record. ...
Here, Washington has rested his ineffective assistance argument on counsel's failure to obtain his expression consent to the concession-of-guilt strategy, and has argued that prejudice must be presumed in these circumstances. The Supreme Court rejected this proposition in Nixon, holding that defendant must show both that the strategic decision to concede guilt was objectively unreasonable and that the defendant was actually prejudiced by the decision. See, e.g., Sondey v White, No. 05-71831, 2009 WL 4800413, at *24-25 (E.D.Mich. Dec.9, 2009) (“The lesson of Nixon, as reflected in cases decided both before and after that decision, is ‘that counsel's concession of a client's guilt does not automatically constitute deficient performance.’ Young v Catoe, 205 F3d 750, 759 (4th Cir.2000). More specifically, ‘conceding guilt to one count of a multi-count indictment to bolster the case for innocence on the remaining counts is a valid trial strategy which, by itself, does not rise to the level of deficient performance.’ United States v Holman, 314 F.3d 837, 840 (7th Cir.2002).”).

The court's reliance on the Supreme Court's decision in Nixon, a capital case, would be more persuasive if capital case jurisprudence always applies in the non-capital context. But that is not the case. For example, in Beck v Alabama (447 US 625, 638 [1980]) the Supreme Court held that although it would have been constitutional in a non-capital context, a state statute precluding consideration of an appropriate lesser included offense violated due process in a capital case.

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