Federal Appeals Court Opinion Discusses Wired Pleas and Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Those interested in case law regarding plea bargaining will want to take a look at the recent case of United States v. Melvin Knight (United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Decided December 8, 2020).  The entire opinion is available here

The case involves interesting issues surrounding "wired pleas," the trial penalty, ineffective assistance of counsel, and the remedies available to co-defendants when the 6th Amendment is violated.  From the case: 

In 2013, Melvin Knight and Aaron Thorpe were arrested for armed robbery and kidnapping.  They were charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the D.C. Superior Court and offered a generous plea deal by the Assistant U.S. Attorney: plead guilty to a single count of assault with a dangerous weapon and no further charges stemming from these crimes would be filed.  Under the D.C. Superior Court Sentencing Guidelines, the likely sentences would be between two and six years for each defendant.  The plea offer was wired, however, so both Knight and Thorpe had to accept it or it would be withdrawn.  Thorpe wanted to accept the plea offer, but Knight, who was erroneously advised by his counsel that the offer came with ten years in prison and never advised by his counsel of the sentencing consequences of rejecting plea the offer, did not.  Once they declined the plea offer, the government dismissed the Superior Court charges and prosecuted Knight and Thorpe on a ten-count indictment in federal court.  A jury found Knight and Thorpe guilty on all counts, and the U.S. district court sentenced Knight to more than 22 years’ imprisonment and Thorpe to 25 years’ imprisonment.

On direct appeal, Knight and Thorpe both argued that they had been denied effective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  This court, concluding that their claims were “colorable,” United States v. Knight, 824 F.3d 1105, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2016), remanded the case.  Following an evidentiary hearing after remand, the district court denied relief.  Although agreeing that Knight’s counsel’s performance was deficient, the court determined that Knight had suffered no prejudice.  The court rejected Thorpe’s claim that his counsel was deficient and did not address prejudice.  Knight and Thorpe appeal. 

For the following reasons, we reverse in part.  Knight satisfied his burden under both prongs of the standard for an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.  See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).  First, as the government acknowledges, the performance by Knight’s counsel did not meet minimal professional standards.  Second, the district court’s determination that Knight suffered no prejudice rested on subsidiary factual findings that ignored the direct effect of his counsel’s deficient performance on Knight’s ability to intelligently assess his options and therefore were clearly erroneous.  Viewed properly, the contemporaneous evidence and Knight’s testimony at the evidentiary hearing sufficed to establish a reasonable probability Knight would have accepted the plea offer but for his counsel’s ineffective assistance.  In contrast, we agree that Thorpe’s counsel was not ineffective and there was no violation of his Sixth Amendment rights.  Accordingly, we affirm as to Thorpe and reverse the denial of Knight’s Sixth Amendment challenge, remanding his case to the district court to provide a remedy consistent with this opinion. 

As readers digest the case, I think it worth noting a few things for focus. 

First, notice the size of the sentencing differential. The original offer was 2 to 6 years under the guidelines. After rejecting the plea offer, the charges were amended, resulting in sentences for the defendants after conviction of 22 years and 25 years. If the government's determination of a just resolution was initially 2 to 6 years, one must wonder what justifications existed for increasing the sentence 1,000% or more after trial. Was there something more to this decision than punishing the defendants for exercising their Constitutional right to trial?

Second, notice the use of "wired" plea offers in this case and the court's decision regarding how to address (or not address) the significant impact of the ineffective assistance of counsel on a co-defendant.  

According to Thorpe, even if his counsel was not deficient, the government must nonetheless reoffer the plea to both defendants, essentially because the generous plea offer in the Superior Court was wired.  As Thorpe sees it,  despite receiving constitutionally adequate counsel, he has suffered a Sixth Amendment injury “identical” to Knight because the ineffective assistance of Knight’s counsel prevented him from obtaining the benefits of the plea offer.  Reply Br. 18.  But although Thorpe expressed his desire to accept the plea offer from the outset, he knew that the plea offer was conditioned on both defendants accepting it.  Thorpe’s ability to accept the wired plea offer was thwarted by Knight’s uninformed decision to reject it.  He was also thwarted by the government’s refusal to unwire the defendants so he could accept the plea offer.  Both defendants were convicted by a jury in federal court, and their convictions were affirmed on direct appeal, save for the remand on their ineffective assistance of counsel claims. In these circumstances, where Thorpe’s Sixth Amendment rights were not violated, the court is unaware of any precedent granting relief to one defendant because a co-defendant received the ineffective assistance of counsel.  Nor does it seem appropriate to order the government to reoffer a wired plea in order to restore Knight to his original position because were this a different case and Knight’s co-defendant had been acquitted at trial, he would certainly refuse to accept the reissued wired plea, and Knight’s constitutional injury would not be remedied at all. 

The appropriate remedy for a defendant who received a wired plea offer but was prevented from taking it solely by his counsel’s ineffectiveness is simply to order the government to extend the offer to that defendant again, without regard to whether his co-defendant would be presently willing to accept the offer.  Although this court cannot order that it do so, the government has the discretion to ameliorate any injustice that would result from permitting the inadequately counseled defendant to accept the original plea offer but not the codefendant whose counsel’s performance was adequate.  Even now, the prosecution may seek dismissal of some or all of the charges against Thorpe under Rule 48(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.  See, e.g., Rinaldi v. United States, 434 U.S. 22 (1977).

In light of the court's above discussion, we must ask ourselves some pointed questions about wired pleas. Should a defendant who is willing to plead guilty and accept responsibility be denied the plea offer because a co-defendant independently and with advice of counsel decides not to follow suit? If so, should the ramifications of that inability to get the co-defendant to plead guilty be measured in decades? What is the explanation for that sentencing differential in this context? Does nothing change for the defendant who wanted to plead guilty even when it turns out that the co-defendant's decision was the result of ineffective assistance of counsel arising to the level of a Constitutional violation? And finally, should the remedy for the eventual result (that result being that the defendant who originally wanted to plead guilty but was prevented by his co-defendant remains in prison for decades) be left to the discretion of the prosecutors who created this sentencing differential in the first place? This case reminds us that there is much work to be done regarding the use and regulation of plea bargaining. 


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