WASHINGTON — Can a murderer escape a death sentence because he rejected a plea deal after receiving bad advice from his lawyer?
The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide that issue in the case of an Idaho man who slit the throat of a police informant 20 years ago.
The case is the latest effort by the justices to decide whether mistakes by a defense lawyer warrant overturning a criminal's conviction or sentence.
It is also the latest move by the high court to reconsider a ruling from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. In its last term, the Supreme Court restored murder convictions or death sentences for four defendants who had won before the 9th Circuit.
The new case began in 1987 when Max Hoffman, a drug dealer, joined two other men in killing the informant, Denise Williams, and disposing of her body. Hoffman was arrested after one of the other men confessed.
Five weeks before his trial, Hoffman was offered a deal: If he would plead guilty to first-degree murder, the state would not seek the death penalty.
His court-appointed lawyer advised him that Idaho's death penalty law was likely to be struck down as unconstitutional because it was nearly identical to an Arizona law that had recently been overturned by that state's high court. For his part, Hoffman doubted that he was guilty of first-degree murder because the other men had played lead roles.
"I am not going to take it. I will take my chances," Hoffman said in rejecting the plea deal.
In 1989, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
The lawyer's prediction proved wrong. The Idaho Supreme Court upheld its death penalty law. It also affirmed Hoffman's sentence.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit overturned Hoffman's death sentence because of the "deficient performance of his counsel."
In his opinion, Judge Harry Pregerson wrote that rejecting the plea bargain was "a risky proposition with a substantial downside." Were it not for his lawyer's "flawed advice," Pregerson continued, "there is a more reasonable probability that he would have accepted the plea."
In July, Idaho prosecutors appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that 9th Circuit judges should not be permitted to "second-guess" the actions of a defense lawyer based on "hindsight." On Monday, the high court said it would hear the case early next year.
The court also restored a death sentence for a serial murderer from Alabama, ruling that he had waited too long to file an appeal in federal court.
Daniel L. Siebert was sentenced to die for killing Sherri Weathers, an adult student at an Alabama school for the deaf, and her two children. He received a separate death sentence for killing another student that same night. In addition, Siebert admitted to a series of other murders. He is awaiting execution for the Weathers murders.
Last year, he won a partial victory in the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which reopened his federal appeal even though he had missed the deadline for filing it. In a five-page opinion Monday, the high court agreed with Alabama prosecutors and ruled that the deadlines could not be ignored.