Release Date:  October 27, 2011
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Supreme Court to hear Missouri v. Frye and Lafler v. Cooper on Monday, October 31

The United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument Monday in two cases involving criminal defendants who claim that their convictions should be overturned because they might have been convicted on lesser charges had their defense attorneys not given them bad advice. At issue in the cases of Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye is whether a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel includes cases where a defendant, after a proper trial and conviction or after agreeing to a plea bargain, finds out later that he might have gotten a better deal.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has filed argument in these cases to encourage a decision denying the defendants’ claim. The National District Attorneys Association has joined the Foundation’s brief.

In 2003, habitual felon Anthony Cooper shot Kali Mundy as she fled from him in a Detroit parking lot. Mundy was hit four times, but survived her life-threatening injuries. A police officer witnessed the shooting. Cooper was charged with attempted murder, possession of a firearm by a felon, and use of a firearm during a felony. If convicted of the attempted murder charge alone, Cooper would have been eligible for a life sentence. Prior to trial, the state offered Cooper a plea bargain carrying a significantly shorter sentence than if he were convicted on all charges. His attorney, mistakenly overestimating the burden of proof required for a conviction, advised against the deal. Cooper turned it down and was later convicted by a jury and sentenced to an indeterminate term of 15 to 30 years in prison.

Cooper appealed, arguing that his attorney’s ineffective assistance during plea bargaining resulted in his subsequent trial and receiving a longer sentence. The trial court denied the claim, finding that “Cooper made his own choices.” The Michigan Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court later refused to disturb that finding. The Federal District Court on habeas corpus overturned the judgment, finding that Cooper’s attorney had been ineffective and ordered the state to offer him the original deal or release him. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that holding.

In 2007, Galin Frye was charged in Missouri with driving with a revoked license, a felony because of his three prior convictions for the same crime. Prior to trial, the prosecutor offered to allow Frye to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and serve 90 days in jail. Frye’s attorney failed to report this offer to his client. Later, Frye agreed to plead guilty to the original felony charge and received three years in prison.

On appeal, Frye claimed that his attorney’s failure to inform him of the more favorable plea bargain constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. The Missouri Court of Appeals agreed, finding that the attorney’s error deprived Frye of a conviction for a lesser charge with a more lenient sentence. The Court remanded the case to allow Frye to proceed to trial or negotiate a new plea bargain.

Earlier this year, the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the states’ appeals of both lower court rulings. The Foundation has filed a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief to encourage decisions overturning the rulings in the Sixth Circuit and the Missouri Court of Appeals. The Foundation argues that because the Supreme Court has made it clear that “there is no constitutional right to a plea bargain,” criminals who plead guilty or are convicted after a trial, are not entitled to a “do over” merely because their attorneys could have gotten them a better deal. The Foundation’s argument notes that the U. S. Supreme Court has previously held that a defense attorney is ineffective if his errors deny the accused “a fair and reliable adjudication of his guilt.” Both criminals in these cases were clearly guilty. They were properly convicted of the crimes they committed and were sentenced within the normal range for those crimes.

“A plea bargain is a windfall to which no defendant is entitled,” said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. “A conviction and sentence should not be overturned merely because a different choice by the defense attorney might have given the defendant a more favorable result than the one he deserved,” he added.

CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.
The Foundation’s brief in this case is available at:
Foundation arguments helped win five United States Supreme Court decisions benefitting law enforcement and public safety during the Court’s previous term.