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L.A. Stabbing Conviction Is Revived by High Court

Although 'no Aristotle,' a lawyer did not fail in his duty to represent his client, the justices say.

October 21, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A lawyer who told a jury that the man he was representing may well have been a "bad person, lousy drug addict, stinking thief [and] jail bird" did not fail in his duty to present his client's defense, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, thereby reviving the conviction of a Los Angeles man in the stabbing of his pregnant girlfriend.

The unanimous unsigned ruling was the latest reversal for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco.

Repeatedly, the liberal-leaning appeals court has reversed criminal convictions based on a claim of a constitutional violation, only to have the more conservative high court revive the original conviction.

The ruling Monday focused on a lawyer's role in defending his client. The justices have said that the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants a right to a lawyer, and not just a warm body. The lawyer must present a reasonable argument in defense of his client, the court has said.

The California state courts said the unnamed public defender for Lionel Gentry met that duty, but the 9th Circuit disagreed.

On an April night in 1994, a security guard at an apartment complex in Los Angeles heard two people arguing outside a nearby building and saw a man stab a woman. A second man fled, and when the guard arrived, he grabbed the knife from Gentry.

After his arrest, Gentry claimed that he had struggled with the other man, who was a drug dealer, and that he had unintentionally stabbed his girlfriend, who recovered. The trial revealed that Gentry had a long criminal record and had lied about it.

"I don't have a lot to say today," the public defender said in launching his closing argument. He stressed, however, that the stabbing took place on a dark night and that the security guard could not see exactly what happened.

"The question is, did he intend to stab her?" he continued. "If you think [Gentry] is lying, you have to convict him." But, the lawyer went on, "if you don't think he's lying -- bad person, lousy drug addict, stinking thief, jail bird, all that to the contrary -- he's not guilty."

After hearing the rest of his closing argument, the jury deliberated for six hours and convicted Gentry of assault with a deadly weapon. Because of his prior convictions, he was sentenced to 39 years in prison.

The state courts rejected several of his appeals. Last year, the 9th Circuit, in a 2-1 ruling, held that Gentry was a victim of "ineffective assistance of counsel." Rather than attack the weaknesses in the prosecution's case, the court said, the defense lawyer made "disparaging remarks about Gentry ... and in his closing argument, failed to present a defense." Its ruling would have given Gentry a new trial.

But state prosecutors appealed on behalf of warden Michael Yarborough, and the Supreme Court issued a reversal Monday in Yarborough vs. Gentry.

"To be sure, Gentry's lawyer was no Aristotle or even Clarence Darrow," the high court said. "The 6th Amendment guarantees reasonable competence, not perfect advocacy judged with the benefit of hindsight." Moreover, the defense lawyer stressed that no one could be sure what happened that night -- "the very essence of a reasonable-doubt argument," the court said.

Its opinion also offered a classic comment on lawyers' arguments from former Justice Robert H. Jackson, who also served as U.S. solicitor general and the prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

"I made three arguments of every case," Jackson once recalled. "First came the one that I had planned -- as I thought, logical, coherent, complete. Second was the one actually presented -- interrupted, incoherent, disjointed, disappointing. The third was the utterly devastating argument that I thought of after going to bed that night."

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