The U.S. Supreme Court on January 18, 2012, in the case of MAPLES v. THOMAS, COMMISSIONER, ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, (Case #10-63)http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-63.pdf, reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals, For The 11th Circuit.
In the underlying trial for murder, the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to death by the Alabama Court. Thereafter, a world-renowned law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, on a pro bono basis filed a Petition for post-conviction relief; it is noteworthy that they contended the defendant’s trial attorneys were inexperienced and incompetent, thereby depriving Maples of effective assistance of counsel as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Later, the two attorneys associated with Sullivan and Cromwell separated from the firm, did not notify Maples and no one else substituted in as attorney. Then, the ruling on the Petition was denied and it was sent to the two former associates of the above law firm. However, none of the lawyers notified Maples and no one filed an official Notice of Withdrawal of Counsel. The time deadline to file a Notice of Appeal had since expired. Soon thereafter, the Alabama Assistant Attorney General wrote to Maples and alerted him he could still file a Writ of Habeas Corpus if he did so in a timely manner. At that point, Maples filed various pleadings in the State Courts and thereafter filed a Writ in the Federal District and U.S. Court of Appeals, both of which denied him any relief.
The U.S. Supreme Court distinguished the situation in which a lawyer’s negligence in failing to timely file a Notice of Appeal does not qualify as cause to excuse the error since the attorney is the agent of the inmate. Instead, the Supreme Court reasoned the failure on the part of the two lawyers to notify Maples of their departure from the law firm constituted abandonment and, therefore, sufficient cause or extraordinary circumstances beyond the control of Maples to relieve him of the procedural default in not filing a timely Notice of Appeal.
The U.S. Supreme Court on March 21, 2012, in the case of MISSOURI v. FRYE, (Case #10-444) http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-444.pdf, vacated the Decision of the Missouri Court of Appeals, holding the right to effective assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S Constitution extends to all critical stages of a criminal case including but not limited to plea offers that may be rejected or lapse because they were not previously accepted.
In the underlying case for driving on a revoked license, the defendant was charged with a felony since this was his fourth offense, with a sentence of up to four years in prison. An offer of a misdemeanor plea bargain was sent by the prosecution to Frye’s lawyer, who did not convey the offer to his client. Thereafter, Frye pled guilty to a felony and was sentenced to three years in prison. Thereafter, Frye sought relief in state court, claiming his attorney failed to inform him of the earlier plea offer and this denied him effective assistance of counsel as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Frye asserted he would have pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor had he known of the prosecutor’s offer.
The State of Missouri contended they should not be subject to the consequences of a defense counsel’s inadequacies because Frye had an opportunity for a full and fair trial and/or a guilty plea even if on less favorable terms. The Supreme Court opined the State’s arguments do not overcome the fact 97% of Federal convictions and 94% of all State convictions are the result of guilty pleas. It held “Plea bargains have become so central to today’s criminal justice system that defense counsel must meet responsibilities in the plea bargain process to render the adequate assistance of counsel hat the Sixth Amendment requires at critical stages of the criminal process.”
In summary, a lawyer has a duty at the plea stage of a criminal proceeding to promptly inform his client of all significant prosecution settlement proposals and to fully explain the alternatives available to his client after a thorough and complete analysis of all of the facts and issues. When a defense lawyer fails to convey a plea offer to his client or provides materially inaccurate advice regarding the underlying charges, and the prosecutor’s burden to prove the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, the defense attorney’s conduct falls below the minimum standard required for adequate and effective assistance of counsel.