Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Be careful what you wish for

Here is an interesting recent case out of the Illinois Appellate Court.  In this case, a criminal defendant appealed his conviction - which was the result of a negotiated plea - arguing that he agreed to the deal based on his lawyer's bad legal advice.  According to the agreement, he received a sentence of 27 years in prison.  Only problem is that, because of the circumstances of the case, the mandatory minimum sentence should have been 25 years more.  So the court of appeals grants his request to set aside the conviction and remands the case to allow the defendant to withdraw the plea "and proceed to trial if he so chooses" only now he is facing, at a minimum, about twice the sentence.  So he got what he wanted but now he is much worse off.

So what happened here?  I don't know why or how the negotiated plea was obtained.  Maybe the prosecutor and the judge were trying to be nice and agreed to a sentence that was less than required (is that improper?) or maybe neither one of them knew the law.  And what about defense counsel, is it improper to negotiate for a deal that the lawyer knows is contrary to the law?  Or, again, was it a case where the lawyer simply did not know the law?  And then there's defendant's counsel on appeal.  Why would he recommend to appeal a sentence when the result could ONLY be worse for the client?  Did he inform the client of this and let the client decide or did the lawyer not realize it?  The case is called People v McRae and it is available here.

Interestingly, this is not the first time I've heard of something like this.  Two years ago, I wrote about a case called People v Beltran Moreno (here), in which the same thing happened.

So now I wonder how frequently lawyers, prosecutors and judges are agreeing to and approving plea agreements that do not meet the minimum standards of the law.

The rest of the decision in McRae is also interesting.  The defendant argued that his attorney gave him bad legal advice about the possible admissibility of a letter he wrote to the lawyer which was taken from his cell and read by the authorities because it was not marked "legal mail."  In the letter, the defendant essentially confessed to committing the crime.  Once the letter was read by the authorities, the defendant's lawyer told him it would be admissible against him and that he should take the plea deal.  On appeal, the defendant argues that that advice was wrong because the letter would have been inadmissible as protected by the attorney-client privilege. The Appellate Court discusses the issue but does not resolve it.  Essentially, it concludes that the answer to the issue depends on "whether the defendant treated the letter in such a careless manner as to negate his intent to keep it confidential" and remands the case so the lower court can determine if that was the case.

No comments:

Post a Comment