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Supreme Court hesitates to extend rights on plea deals

Justices show reluctance to reopen the cases of criminal defendants who missed out on good plea deals because of their lawyers' mistakes.

November 01, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
  • Chief Justice John Roberts, shown in a file photo, said it was the defendant's choice to plead guilty.
Chief Justice John Roberts, shown in a file photo, said it was the defendant's… (Pete Souza / Chicago Tribune )

Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court showed little enthusiasm Monday for reopening the cases of criminal defendants who lost out on good plea deals based on bad advice or bungling by their lawyers.

In the past, the court has said that criminal defendants not only have a right to a lawyer, but a right to reopen their cases if a lawyer's bungling denied them a right to a fair trial.

These days, however, about 95% of crime cases are resolved through a plea agreement, not a trial. At issue in two cases Monday was whether to extend the right to competent legal advice to plea deals.

Most of the justices made clear they were reluctant to give defendants a new trial or a shorter prison term because a lawyer's mistake caused them to miss out on a favorable plea deal.

"It was the defendant's choice, not the lawyer's choice" to plead guilty, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told one advocate. And the defendant has to live with his or her decision, he suggested.

One case from Missouri involved a lawyer who failed to tell his client about a good deal. Gailin Frye was charged with driving with a revoked license, and a prosecutor offered Frye's public defender a deal: Plead guilty to a misdemeanor and he would recommend 90 days in jail. The lawyer failed to tell Frye about the offer. A few months later, Frye pleaded guilty to a felony and received three years in prison. In the interim, however, he had also been arrested again for driving without a license.

His new lawyer argued that as a matter of "fundamental fairness," Frye's guilty plea should be voided.

"Why? Why is it unfair for the law to apply to this individual the punishment he deserved for the crime he committed?" asked Justice Antonin Scalia.

He and other justices emphasized that there was "no right to a plea deal." And they said the judge would have insisted on a longer jail term for Frye because of his multiple convictions.

The second case involved a Michigan man who passed up a deal that would have sent him to prison for four to seven years for shooting a woman four times. His lawyer told him he would not be convicted of assault with intent to murder because he shot her below the waist. Anthony Cooper then went to trial, was convicted on all counts and received a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.

The justices said there was no fair way to start all over again after a defendant had been tried and convicted. "There is just no way to unscramble the eggs in this situation," said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

"Mr. Cooper is guilty of shooting Kali Mundy. He also got exactly the sentence that the people prescribed for the crime that he committed," said Michigan Solicitor Gen. John Bursch. "There is very little unfair in holding him to that sentence."

By the end of the argument, most of the justices sounded as if they agreed.

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