July 30, 2008
Pitting Client Against Client
A criminal defendant ("petitioner") who was represented jointly along with her spouse in connection with drug charges established that counsel labored under a conflict of interest. Thus, the South Carolina Supreme Court concluded that the trial court improperly denied post-conviction relief:
At the PCR hearing, both plea counsel and Petitioner testified that counsel spent more time preparing Husband’s case despite the fact that Petitioner was pleading guilty to a majority of the charged offenses and faced a more severe sentence.
In terms of the conflict of interest, plea counsel acknowledged that she discussed this issue with Husband, but could not recall specifically talking to Petitioner about such a conflict. Plea counsel also admitted that she argued for leniency in Husband’s case and requested the plea judge reconsider his sentence. In contrast, plea counsel did not make these arguments on behalf of Petitioner. Moreover, Petitioner’s and Husband’s interests were adverse to one another given Petitioner pleaded guilty to the majority of the drug charges whereas Husband pleaded guilty to a single charge of PWID marijuana within proximity of a school. Significantly, plea counsel stated at the plea proceeding that Husband was originally “charged with everything,” but she “was able to get the solicitor who had the case at the time to dismiss all of his cases.” A review of the plea proceeding also reveals that plea counsel argued for leniency on behalf of Husband by comparing his more limited involvement in the crimes to that of Petitioner. We believe plea counsel’s approach essentially pitted Husband against Petitioner, which was clearly detrimental to Petitioner’s interests.
Under the circumstances, the court held that the petitioner need not demonstrate prejudice in order to establish entitlement to relief. (Mike Frisch)
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