Friday, March 5, 2010

A Safe Assumption

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the denial of a motion for new trial in a case that involved an undisclosed previous intimate relationship between defense counsel and a prosecutor who was not involved in the case (the "ADA"). The defense attorney also had dated the trial prosecutor many years before the trial.

The key facts:

While he was representing Stote, Walsh and the ADA attended a concert together in late March, 1999, and began dating, seeing each other on weekends, until approximately April, 2000. When this relationship began, Walsh had already prepared and filed Stote's first motion. During the course of Walsh's relationship with the ADA, the first motion was denied after a nonevidentiary hearing, and Walsh prepared and, possibly, filed Stote's appellate brief.

The affidavits of Walsh and the ADA reveal the following facts about the nature of their relationship. The ADA attests in her affidavit that she and Walsh did not live together at any time during their relationship. Walsh similarly attests that they lived separately. The ADA also states that she does not know whether the relationship was "monogamous." Although neither affidavit states whether the relationship was sexual, we can safely assume that it was, given that the relationship lasted more than one year, the participants were mature adults, neither of them has denied it, and the ADA's reference to a "monogamous" relationship implies as much. The ADA further states that Walsh did not bring legal work to her home, did not to her knowledge receive telephone calls at her home regarding legal matters, and did not discuss Stote's case with her or disclose confidential information to her. She states that, while she and Walsh were seeing each other, they did not "substantively" discuss their "respective legal concerns" and that their work did not "overlap in any respect." Although she was aware that Walsh was working on "an appellate brief," she did not know of its contents, and "even if" she knew the defendant's name "at that time," she did not know anything about Stote's case until she read our 2000 opinion, which was issued after the relationship ended. Walsh similarly attests that he did not discuss Stote's case or appeal with the ADA and that he did not disclose any confidential information to her. Shortly after the relationship ended, according to the ADA's affidavit, Walsh began living with another woman whom he later married.

The ADA's affidavit also indicates that she did not participate in the preparation of the Commonwealth's brief in Stote's appeal. The trial prosecutor, in her affidavit, attests that she alone wrote the Commonwealth's opposition to Stote's first motion and, later, the Commonwealth's appellate brief without the assistance of anyone in the district attorney's office, other than submitting the brief to her superiors for approval. The trial prosecutor further states that she did not discuss any aspect of the Stote case with the ADA.

Although, in accordance with the single justice's decision, we do not consider whether Stote is entitled to a new trial due to any alleged conflict of interest arising from Walsh's previous relationship with the trial prosecutor, some facts concerning that relationship are relevant to our decision. In 1979 and 1980, Walsh and the trial prosecutor dated, but lived separately. Their dating relationship ended amicably in 1980, some seventeen years before Stote's trial. Walsh and the trial prosecutor maintained a cordial and professional relationship thereafter. Both Walsh and the trial prosecutor eventually went on to marry others, in Walsh's case, as stated above, after his relationship with the ADA ended.

The court concludes:

Stote argues on appeal that, because of Walsh's relationship with the ADA, Walsh failed to argue that he was burdened by a conflict of interest at trial arising from his previous intimate relationship with the trial prosecutor, depriving Stote of the effective assistance of appellate counsel. We disagree. First, the judge found that the intimate relationship between Walsh and the trial prosecutor had ended seventeen years before Stote's trial and gave rise to no actual conflict of interest. Second, as to any potential conflict of interest arising from Walsh's relationship with the trial prosecutor, the judge pointed out that Walsh "had no hesitation whatsoever in lambasting [the trial prosecutor] for her alleged transgressions at trial" and concluded that "Walsh vigorously represented the defendant both at trial and on appeal." Much of our opinion in Stote's direct appeal is devoted to disposing of Walsh's charges concerning the trial prosecutor's conduct of the trial.

Stote also argues that Walsh, as his trial counsel, deprived him of effective assistance due to various failures and omissions at trial, such as failing to investigate and develop certain evidence that would have supported Stote's defense. Due to the limited scope of review authorized by the gatekeeper, this claim is properly before us only to the extent that it might establish material prejudice arising from Walsh's relationship with the ADA...Accordingly, to obtain relief on this basis, Stote would have to show not only that the asserted failures at trial constituted ineffective assistance of counsel (that is, that if these asserted failures had been raised in Stote's direct appeal, the conviction would have been reversed), but also that the relationship with the ADA was what prevented Walsh from raising such claims in the direct appeal. Whatever the merits of the former element, Stote cannot establish the latter. Stote offers no reason to believe that, but for the relationship, Walsh would have raised these issues and thereby accused himself of ineffective assistance. Put another way, supposing that Walsh had not been involved in a relationship with the ADA or anyone else in the district attorney's office and that he was therefore under no potential conflict of interest, he nonetheless would not have argued in the direct appeal that he deprived Stote of effective assistance at trial. In these circumstances, the relationship did not affect the arguments raised in Stote's direct appeal. Stote has not shown that any potential conflict of interest arising from his attorney's relationship with the ADA resulted in any material prejudice to him.

Conclusion. We conclude that in the circumstances of this case, there was neither an actual conflict of interest nor a potential conflict that resulted in material prejudice in Stote's appeal. We remind members of the bar of their professional obligation under rule 1.7(b) to disclose to their clients any intimate personal relationship that might impair their ability to provide untrammeled and unimpaired assistance of counsel. Even if an attorney reasonably believes that he or she can continue to represent the client vigorously, the attorney should err on the side of caution by disclosing the relevant facts, which need not include the name of the third person, and asking whether the client consents to the representation.(citations and footnotes omitted)

The case is Commonwealth v. Stote, decided March 5, 2010.(Mike Frisch)

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