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Judges Reject Appeal in 'Sleeping Attorney' Case

Ruling: A defendant in a Texas murder trial has no absolute right to a lawyer who stays awake, panel says.

October 28, 2000|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

A defendant in a capital murder trial does not have an absolute constitutional right to have an attorney who stays awake for the entire trial, a sharply divided federal appeals panel in New Orleans ruled Friday.

The ruling came in the case of Calvin J. Burdine, whose death sentence for a 1983 murder in Texas drew considerable--and unfavorable--attention to that state's death penalty system.

During Burdine's trial, his court-appointed lawyer, Joe Frank Cannon, frequently fell asleep, according to jurors and the court clerk. Last year, a federal district judge in Houston ordered a new trial for Burdine, saying that "a sleeping counsel is equivalent to no counsel at all."

But by a 2-1 majority, a panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. The judges were not "condoning sleeping by defense counsel during a capital murder trial," Judges Rhesa H. Barksdale and Edith H. Jones wrote in their ruling. But from the trial record, "it is impossible to determine--instead, only to speculate--that counsel's sleeping" actually hurt Burdine's case, the majority said.

Jones, who was appointed to the appeals court by President Ronald Reagan, has been widely touted as a possible Supreme Court nominee if Texas Gov. George W. Bush wins the presidential election. Barksdale was appointed by Bush's father when he was president.

The Texas attorney general's office, which had brought the case to the appeals court, applauded the ruling. "Today's decision confirms that a jury's verdict will not be overturned unless and until the defendant proves that actual harm occurred as a result of his attorney's conduct at trial," said spokeswoman Heather Browne.

But in a stinging dissent, appellate Judge Fortunato P. Benavides, an appointee of President Clinton, said, "It shocks the conscience that a defendant could be sentenced to death under the circumstances surrounding counsel's representation of Burdine."

Burdine's appellate attorney Robert L. McGlasson said that he was deeply disturbed by the decision and that he would ask for a rehearing by a larger panel of 5th Circuit judges or, failing that, seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I am confident that, on fuller review, a higher court will agree with me that justice asleep is justice denied," McGlasson said.

Even if Friday's ruling stands, Burdine, who already has had four stays of execution, will not immediately face execution. His lawyers have raised several other issues that have not yet been ruled on.

The Burdine case came to national attention during the presidential primaries last spring when Bush was asked about "sleeping lawyers" in Texas death penalty cases. Bush said the fact that Burdine's guilty verdict and death sentence had been blocked showed that "the system worked." He did not mention that the state had already appealed that reversal.

Mike Jones, a Bush spokesman in Austin, said the governor's office had not seen the decision and would have no immediate comment.

Friday's decision arose from a trial in which Burdine was convicted of murdering his former roommate, W.T. Wise. The body, found in the bedroom of a trailer, had two stab wounds in the back and the hands were tied with a cord. Burdine conceded long ago that he and a friend went to rob Wise, with whom Burdine had had a sexual relationship. But Burdine denies participating in the killing. His co-defendant, Dennis McCreight, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was paroled after eight years, even though evidence introduced at Burdine's trial pointed to McCreight as the principal perpetrator.

The Texas attorney general's office has conceded that Cannon repeatedly slept through parts of Burdine's trial. But the prosecutors argued that his performance, while shoddy, passed constitutional muster.

Under Supreme Court rulings, it is very difficult to get a verdict reversed because of "ineffective assistance of counsel." As long ago as 1932 the high court ruled that a defendant needs "the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him." To prove that a lawyer's work was inadequate, however, the justices ruled in 1984 that a defendant has to show, not only that his attorney's performance was well below norms, but also that the lawyer's work prejudiced the defendant's case. On the other hand, the high court has also said that there are some circumstances in which a lawyer's performance is so bad that prejudice can be presumed.

The federal district judge who originally overturned Burdine's sentence, Judge David Hittner, ruled that a lawyer falling asleep during substantial portions of a trial was one of those cases in which reversal should be automatic.

The appeals court majority disagreed. "Prejudice cannot be presumed," the two judges wrote, noting that in past cases verdicts had been upheld even though the lawyers had been drunk or impaired in some other way.

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