February 6, 2011
A defendant convicted of first degree murder and robbery is entitled to a hearing on a conflict of interest claim, according to a recent opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The defendant received a death sentence for the crime. The death sentence was vacated in 2007 based on a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel in the penalty phase.
The attorney who defended him also was representing his brother in a civil matter at the time of the trial. There was evidence that pointed to the brother as the perpetrator that was not pursued, including a witness (not called) who had identified the brother. The conflict was not disclosed to the trial court and there is conflicting evidence as to client consent.
Why might the attorney have wished to point the finger away from the brother? One reason might be the civil case, which later settled and put over $18,000 in the attorney's pocket.
Here, the court rejected Pennsylvania's appeal of the district court's decision to grant a hearing on the conflict issue. The brother is now deceased. The court notes that the conflict claim was first brought shortly after the brother's death, but concludes that it is not time-barred. (Mike Frisch)
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