Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
by
The case involves a criminal defendant, Tasi Autele, who was indicted on charges of second-degree assault and strangulation. Autele retained attorneys Mackeson and Hall to represent him. However, on the day of the trial, the court granted defense counsel's request to postpone the trial to investigate photographs that had been anonymously delivered to Hall's office. On the next scheduled trial date, the trial court granted defense counsel's request to withdraw due to an ethical conflict that would likely arise from the prosecutor's plan to cross-examine Autele about those photographs. Nine days later, the same attorneys appeared and asked to be allowed to represent Autele, but the trial court denied the request due to its concerns about a continuing ethical issue.The Court of Appeals affirmed Autele's conviction, concluding that the record was insufficient to determine whether the trial court had abused its discretion in denying Autele's request to be represented by his retained counsel. The Supreme Court of the State of Oregon reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court held that when a trial court denies a criminal defendant's request to be represented by retained counsel of their choice, the record must demonstrate that the trial court's decision was a permissible exercise of its discretion. The court found that the record in this case did not reflect that the trial court's decision amounted to a reasonable exercise of its discretion. Therefore, the court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial. View "State v. Autele" on Justia Law

by
The case involves Chad Alan Lee, who was convicted and sentenced to death for three murders. Lee filed a habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, arguing that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective at sentencing because he failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence that Lee suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effect. Lee also argued that the Arizona Supreme Court erred by requiring him to establish a causal nexus between his crimes and his mitigating evidence.The district court denied Lee's petition and his motion for leave to amend. The court found that Lee's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel was procedurally defaulted because he did not raise it in his postconviction relief petition. The court also found that Lee's proposed claim that the Arizona Supreme Court erred was untimely, procedurally defaulted, and without merit.On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision. The court held that Lee's theories for obtaining a federal evidentiary hearing notwithstanding 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2), which places strict limits on when federal courts can hold evidentiary hearings and consider new evidence, lacked merit. The court also held that even if Lee could demonstrate cause to excuse the procedural default, he could not demonstrate prejudice. The court further held that the district court correctly denied leave to add Lee's proposed claim because it was untimely under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1), procedurally defaulted, and lacked merit. View "LEE V. THORNELL" on Justia Law

by
The case involves Taiwo Onamuti, who was charged with 23 crimes related to his involvement in a tax-fraud scheme. He pleaded guilty to one count each of identity theft, aggravated identity theft, and presenting false claims for tax refunds. After several changes in defense counsel and an unsuccessful motion to withdraw the guilty plea, Onamuti was sentenced to 204 months in prison. Later, Onamuti moved to vacate his convictions under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, arguing that his attorney had been ineffective for failing to move to dismiss the charge and for advising him to plead guilty. The judge vacated the aggravated identity theft conviction, reduced Onamuti’s prison sentence by 24 months, and denied all other relief.Onamuti filed a motion in his criminal case seeking attorney’s fees under the Hyde Amendment for the legal expenses he had incurred to fight the charges of aggravated identity theft. He argued that the government had pursued those charges vexatiously and in bad faith. The government objected on procedural grounds, arguing that the Hyde Amendment does not apply in a § 2255 proceeding. The judge denied the motion for fees, concluding that the motion was procedurally deficient.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court's decision. The court held that Onamuti did not show that the government’s position was frivolous, vexatious, or in bad faith. The court also held that the civil deadline applies to a motion for attorney’s fees under the Hyde Amendment because it is a civil matter ancillary to the criminal case. Therefore, Onamuti was not entitled to an award of attorney fees under the Hyde Amendment. View "United States v. Onamuti" on Justia Law

by
The defendant, Donald L. Garcia, was convicted of first-degree motor vehicle theft by a jury. On appeal, Garcia argued that the judge who presided over his case was disqualified due to her previous involvement as a managing public defender, where she briefly covered for his lawyer in a pretrial proceeding. The court of appeals agreed with Garcia and reversed his conviction.The Supreme Court of the State of Colorado, however, disagreed with the court of appeals. The Supreme Court agreed that the judge was disqualified, but concluded that the defendant waived his claim of judicial disqualification by failing to object. The court reasoned that the defendant's attorneys were likely aware of the judge's disqualification, and their failure to object amounted to the intentional relinquishment of a known right. Therefore, the court concluded that the defendant's claim of judicial disqualification was waived.Consequently, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals, reinstating Garcia's conviction and sentence. The court did not need to decide whether it is structural error requiring automatic reversal for a statutorily disqualified judge to preside over a case under the circumstances presented here, as it concluded that the defendant had waived his claim. View "People v. Garcia" on Justia Law

by
Timothy Smith was convicted of two counts of sexual abuse in the second degree for the sexual abuse of his former stepdaughter, H.R. Smith filed an application for postconviction relief, arguing that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to request additional peremptory strikes after the trial court denied his for-cause challenges to four prospective jurors, in failing to move for a mistrial due to claimed juror misconduct, and in failing to call favorable defense witnesses. The postconviction court denied Smith’s application for postconviction relief.The Iowa Court of Appeals held that the postconviction court erred in denying Smith’s claim regarding trial counsel’s failure to request additional peremptory strikes but did not address the remaining claims. The court of appeals reversed Smith’s convictions and remanded the case for further proceedings. The State of Iowa appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Iowa.The Supreme Court of Iowa vacated the decision of the court of appeals and affirmed the judgment of the district court. The Supreme Court held that Smith failed to establish that his trial counsel breached an essential duty in not moving for a mistrial due to alleged jury misconduct. The court also held that Smith failed to prove his trial counsel breached an essential duty in failing to call certain witnesses that would have been favorable to Smith’s defense. The court concluded that the cumulative prejudice analysis set forth in Clay was inapplicable here because the court found no breaches of duty for those claims. View "Smith v. State of Iowa" on Justia Law

by
Jan Kowalski, an attorney, was accused of using her position to hide her brother's assets during his bankruptcy proceedings. She allegedly concealed around $357,000 in her attorney trust account and made false statements under oath to cover up the concealment. Kowalski was charged with four counts of bankruptcy fraud and one count of concealing assets from the bankruptcy trustee. She pleaded guilty to the charge of concealing assets.Prior to her trial, Kowalski had been involved in her brother's bankruptcy proceedings, where she used her attorney trust account to hide her brother's assets from his creditors and the bankruptcy trustee. She also made false statements under oath and fabricated documents to cover up her actions. The bankruptcy trustee confronted Kowalski with inconsistencies between her personal bank records and her earlier testimony, but she continued to lie under oath.Kowalski was sentenced to 37 months' imprisonment by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. The court applied two sentencing enhancements: the § 2B1.1(b)(10)(C) sophisticated-means enhancement, and the § 3B1.3 abuse of position of trust enhancement. Kowalski appealed her sentence, arguing that the district court erred in applying these enhancements and that her sentence was substantively unreasonable.The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that Kowalski had indeed used sophisticated means to commit the offense and had abused her position of trust. The court also found her sentence to be substantively reasonable. View "United States v. Kowalski" on Justia Law

by
The case involves Zeth Browder, who was charged with first-degree sexual assault, third-degree sexual assault, first-degree burglary, kidnapping, and evidence tampering. The charges stemmed from an incident where Browder allegedly sexually assaulted an elderly woman while she was camping in a county park. The jury found Browder guilty of all charges.The Intermediate Court of Appeals (ICA) reviewed the case and vacated Browder's conviction, ordering a new trial based on inappropriate comments made by the prosecutor during closing arguments. However, the ICA was divided on whether the prosecutor's comment that the witness' testimony was "consistent with someone who's been traumatized" constituted prosecutorial misconduct. The majority held that the statement was not misconduct, while Judge Leonard disagreed, arguing that the remark mirrored one that the Supreme Court of the State of Hawai'i found improper in a previous case, State v. Hirata.The Supreme Court of the State of Hawai'i disagreed with the ICA's majority, holding that the prosecutor's comment was indeed prosecutorial misconduct. The court found that the prosecutor expressed a personal belief about the witness' credibility and introduced new evidence during closing arguments, thereby undermining Browder's right to a fair trial. The court noted that the prosecutor's comment suggested that the witness had been traumatized, a conclusion that was not supported by any expert testimony. The court vacated the part of the ICA's opinion that allowed the prosecutor's comment and remanded the case to the Circuit Court of the Third Circuit. View "State v. Browder" on Justia Law

by
The case involves Rudolph Amador, who was convicted of two counts of criminal sexual contact of a minor and one count of child abuse. The charges stemmed from allegations that Amador sexually abused his friend's eleven-year-old daughter. After the initial trial, the district court ordered a new trial due to prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel. However, the court denied Amador's argument that the retrial was barred. Amador was retried and convicted on all three counts.Amador appealed to the Court of Appeals, arguing that the retrial was barred by double jeopardy and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court of Appeals rejected Amador's arguments and affirmed his convictions. Amador then petitioned for a writ of certiorari on both issues to the Supreme Court of the State of New Mexico.The Supreme Court of the State of New Mexico reversed the Court of Appeals' decision. The court held that Amador's second trial was barred by double jeopardy under Article II, Section 15 of the New Mexico Constitution. The court found that the prosecutor's misconduct, which included misrepresenting Amador's conditional discharge as a felony conviction and repeatedly referring to Amador as a pedophile during closing arguments, demonstrated a willful disregard of the resulting mistrial. The court remanded the case to the district court to vacate Amador's convictions and discharge him from any further prosecution in this matter. View "State v. Amador" on Justia Law

by
The case revolves around Justin Lee Camperud, who was accused of sexually abusing a child in 2016. The child's mother reported the incident to the Fargo police department in July 2021. The child was later interviewed by the Red River Children's Advocacy Center, a non-governmental organization. In October 2021, Dr. Anna Schimmelpfennig, the director of mental health services at the Center, participated in a mental health assessment for the child. The State notified Camperud in November 2022 that it intended to call Schimmelpfennig as an expert witness. However, the State failed to disclose that Schimmelpfennig was married to a Cass County Assistant State’s Attorney and that she had participated in the child's mental health assessment.The case was initially heard in the District Court of Cass County, East Central Judicial District. On the day before the trial was to start, Camperud learned about Schimmelpfennig's marriage and her participation in the child's assessment. He moved to exclude Schimmelpfennig’s testimony due to the State's failure to provide him with this information. The district court allowed Camperud to question Schimmelpfennig about her relationship with the Assistant State’s Attorney and her involvement in the child's assessment. The court also delayed the start of the trial by a day. Despite Camperud's attempts to impeach Schimmelpfennig over her marriage, a jury found him guilty of gross sexual imposition.The case was then reviewed by the Supreme Court of North Dakota. Camperud argued that the district court abused its discretion by not granting a continuance after he and the court learned about the undisclosed evidence. The Supreme Court acknowledged that the State had committed discovery violations. However, it ruled that the district court had chosen the least severe sanctions to rectify the non-disclosure, including requiring the production of the assessment, limiting the expert’s testimony, permitting two voir dire sessions of the expert, and delaying the start of trial. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court's judgment, concluding that it did not abuse its discretion by denying Camperud’s motion for a continuance. View "State v. Camperud" on Justia Law

by
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reviewed a case involving Kevin Dowling, who was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Dowling was initially charged with robbery, indecent assault, and attempted rape of Jennifer Myers, who identified him as her assailant. Two days before his trial, Myers was found dead in her art gallery. Dowling was subsequently charged with her murder. At trial, the prosecution argued that Dowling killed Myers to prevent her from testifying against him. The prosecution presented evidence including a video of Dowling’s fabricated alibi, a letter in which he confessed to attacking Myers, and testimony from several witnesses. Dowling was convicted and sentenced to death.Dowling later filed a petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act, alleging that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate the accuracy of a receipt from a store where a witness claimed to have seen him on the day of the murder. He also claimed that the prosecution violated his due process rights by not disclosing cash register journals from the store, which would have shown that the time on the receipt was correct. The PCRA court granted Dowling a new trial, but the Commonwealth appealed.The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed the PCRA court's decision, concluding that Dowling failed to demonstrate a reasonable probability that the outcome of his trial would have been different had his counsel conducted further investigation or had the prosecution disclosed the register journals. The court also found that the false testimony of a police officer about the time on the receipt could not have affected the judgment of the jury, given the substantial independent evidence incriminating Dowling in Myers’ murder. View "Commonwealth v. Dowling" on Justia Law