April 6, 2012
Will the Supremes Take a Discovery Case
In the wake of the Schuelke/Shields report and the introduction of new discovery legislation, one has to wonder whether the Supreme Court will take a case that raises a Brady discovery issue. At their doorsteps is the case of James A. Brown, a case from the Enron days. As previously noted (here) Brown, is a former Merrill Lynch executive who "was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for his testimony before the Enron grand jury about a transaction between Merrill and Enron in late 1999." There are important issues here like the appropriate standard of review for Brady cases. Should it be "clear error" or should it be de novo. (see here) The case also examines "materiality," a term that has created some confusion. What must a prosecutor provide to the defense counsel. And isn't it odd that the adversary in the process is making the determination for what the defense is entitled to receive. The case looks at summaries being provided to defense counsel. Bottom line - summaries are not the same as the real thing.
In the reply brief recently filed, they argue-
"Here, as in Stevens, many exculpatory statements appear only in raw notes of government interviews of key players. In Brown, the Enron Task Force actually yellow-highlighted these notes before trial – along with prior testimony and FBI 302s – indicating that the information met the requirements of Brady and was material, but suppressed them anyway. While continuing to deny that any evidence fell within Brady, new prosecutors recently disclosed 6,300 pages including much (but still not all) of the evidence suppressed by the Task Force." (Reply Brief - Download FILED REPLY ON CERT.)
The government's brief sees things differently - Download SG OPP32312.
This case is distributed for conference on April 20th.
April 5, 2012
Frye/Cooper Decisions Likely Not To Be Of Great Significance
Supreme Court decisions in new areas of criminal law often lead professors and practitioners to predict startling changes in the legal landscape. Regarding the Frye and Cooper decisions I discussed earlier this week, Widener Law Professor Wesley M. Oliver told the New York Times that these cases "constitute the single greatest revolution in the criminal justice system since Gideon v. Wainwright . . . ." See here. I do not agree.
While I do expect that there will be some formalistic change in plea offer procedures so that offers will routinely be made in writing or on the record, I do not expect that these decisions will ultimately provide great benefits to many defendants or great detriments to many prosecutors. Most courts had already recognized that ineffective assistance arises when a defense lawyer fails to communicate a plea offer or gives incompetent advice regarding whether to accept it. True, Frye/Cooper allows, but does not mandate, relief even after trial for such ineffective assistance. And, there probably will be an increased number of post-trial petitions concerning alleged failures of counsel to communicate favorable pleas or competently advise whether to accept them. However, few of these challenges are likely to be ultimately successful.
Indeed, the obstacles set forth by the Supreme Court for a defendant convicted after trial to succeed are substantial. The defendant must demonstrate that the plea offer that counsel failed to communicate was both a formal and favorable one or that counsel gave constitutionally inadequate advice concerning it, that the defendant would have accepted the offer if it had been presented properly, that the offer would not have been cancelled by the prosecutor prior to execution and that the offer would have been accepted by the judge. Then, even if the prosecutor is required to reoffer the plea proposal, the judge may in her discretion sentence the defendant according to the conditions in the deal, to the same sentence he received after trial, or somewhere in between. Thus, even if the Court finds that the defendant was unconstitutionally deprived of a fair opportunity to accept a proffered plea offer, the defendant may ultimately receive the very same sentence he received after trial -- essentially no relief at all.
Justice Scalia in his dissent in Cooper found it "extraordinary" that the remedy for an unconstitutional conviction "should ever be subject at all to the trial judge's discretion," and that a "remedy could ever include no remedy at all."
Justice Scalia suspects, so he says, that the "squeamishness" in fashioning a remedy and the "incoherence" of the remedy provided is attributable to the majority's inner recognition that in fact there is "no real constitutional violation." I suspect that it is a compromise to secure a five-vote majority.
April 4, 2012
DOJ's Lafler/Frye Motion Goes Too Far
In companion cases decided two weeks ago, Missouri v. Frye and Lafler v. Cooper, the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel applies to the plea bargaining process and that a defendant who rejected a favorable plea bargain based on incompetent advice from his attorney may be entitled to relief even though he was subsequently convicted at trial.
In Frye, the defense attorney failed to relay a plea offer from the prosecution. The uncommunicated offer expired and the defendant later accepted a plea deal that involved a substantially greater sentence than did the original offer. The Court held that "as a general rule" defense counsel is required to communicate to his client a "formal offer" that is favorable in that it may result in a lesser sentence, a conviction of a lesser crime or crimes, or both.
In Cooper (the name of the defendant), the attorney conveyed the plea offer but advised the client to reject it based on the attorney's constitutionally defective assessment of the strength of the case. The Court held that such advice in plea-bargaining discussions was ineffective assistance and was not rendered irrelevant by a later conviction at trial. Both decisions were by a 5-4 majority with the opinion written by Justice Kennedy.
Thus, in sum, the Supreme Court has held that in the plea bargaining process, the defense attorney must convey a favorable plea offer (Frye) and must not give ineffective advice relating to the decision to accept or reject it (Cooper). Either failure may result in relief even if the defendant were later convicted after trial and sentenced accordingly.
The Department of Justice, understandably and reasonably concerned in protecting convictions in pending cases headed for trial from later appellate and collateral attack on the grounds that a plea offer was not communicated or was rejected because of unsound advice, has responded, at least in one jurisdiction, with a motion to make a record of "plea negotiation activity." See here - Download Motion Pursuant to Lafler and Frye. This "pro-active" motion essentially contains two prongs.
First, the defense counsel should report the plea offer to the Court in the presence of the prosecutor, and the defendant should acknowledge having rejected it. That prong appears to me generally unobjectionable, although I see no reason why the prosecutor, the offeror, should not state the offer, rather than the defense counsel, the offeree.
Second, DOJ requests that the defense counsel's advice concerning whether to accept or reject the plea also be placed in the record. Recognizing that this advice may be privileged, as Frye states, DOJ asks that this be done in a "sealed ex parte document" signed by the defendant and defense counsel. That prong is highly objectionable, and DOJ should withdraw it. If not, defense counsel should challenge it and courts should reject it.
Information that is "privileged" as attorney-client confidences should not be disclosed to anyone, including the judge, unless absolutely necessary (as it might be in a challenge as to whether the communication is actually privileged). Such disclosure, for instance, might reveal the defense trial strategy so that the judge might be influenced in her trial rulings. It might reveal uncharged crimes about which the judge is unaware. It might suggest that the defendant's arguably unreasonable refusal to accept the attorney's strong advice to plead guilty reflects a lack of acceptance of responsibility that the judge might consider negatively at sentence. It might also reveal the attorney's candid view of the judge's ability, fairness and decency, a factor in many plea decisions.
To be sure, a failure to make a record of an attorney's advice whether to plead guilty might lead to an increased number of appeals or collateral proceedings based on alleged unsound advice, although, as pointed out in Cooper, past history does not support this conclusion. This standard argument, that the floodgates will be opened, however, applies equally to the failure to make a record as to the attorney's advice whether a defendant should testify, or should forego for tactical reasons a motion to suppress, or should call certain witnesses, or any number of issues in a criminal proceeding.
DOJ should reconsider its request that the attorney divulge, even ex parte, confidential plea bargaining discussions between lawyer and client beyond merely that the offer was communicated and not accepted. In the absence of a withdrawal of this request by DOJ, defense lawyers should not voluntarily comply (unless it is to their clients' advantage, and I can think of many instances where a defense lawyer would seize the opportunity to give his evaluation of the case to the judge ex parte), and courts should not enforce such an intrusive requirement.
April 1, 2012
The Department of Justice and the Culture of Non-Disclosure
We don't need new legislation insuring that defendants receive the exculpatory information they are entitled to under the U.S. Constitution, because the DOJ has learned its lesson from the Ted Stevens case and will NEVER let something like that happen again.
For example, in the high-profile insider trading case of U.S. v. Rajat Gupta, the DOJ recently argued that its prosecutors did NOT have to review 44 SEC interview memos for Brady material, even though the memos summarized interview sessions jointly conducted by SEC and DOJ attorneys. According to SDNY prosecutors, the overall DOJ and SEC investigations were not technically "joint" in nature, so SDNY AUSAs had no Brady obligations with respect to the SEC memos. The SEC attorneys were capable of conducting the Brady review on their own. Yeah, right. Just like the FBI and IRS Special Agents were capable of conducting the Brady review in U.S. v. Stevens. I completely forgot about the Brady training that SEC attorneys receive on a regular basis. DOJ's position is not only contrary to SDNY and Second Circuit case law--it also violates the letter and spirit of the Ogden Memo, promulgated after Stevens to prevent future Brady debacles. I guess SDNY didn't get the memo. (They're special you know.) Judge Jed Rakoff was having none of it. See his Gupta Brady Ruling, issued last week, for details. In truth, all of the SEC memos should be turned over in their entirety to the defense, just as all of the 302s and MOIs in Stevens should have been turned over.
It is clear that the DOJ has learned almost nothing from the Ted Stevens case. Suppression of exculpatory and/or potentially exculpatory evidence is largely not an issue at the line level. The typical AUSA knows Brady/Giglio when he sees it, and knows to disclose it. The problems tend to arise in high profile cases, particularly those captained out of DC. The sickness extends to very high levels at the DOJ. The Stevens prosecution clearly showed this. The Bill Allen-Bambi Tyree subornation of perjury allegation, reported in 2004 to a federal judge by DOJ prosecutors in a sealed pleading, was classic Giglio material. It should have instantly been recognized as such by the Chief and Deputy Chief of the Public Integrity Unit and they should have ordered it turned over immediately to the defense. It wasn't and they didn't.
The DOJ has run out of scandals and excuses. Enough already. At long last, have they no shame?