Sunday, June 25, 2017

Funny Things Happen At Trial

Last week, the Supreme Court gave permanent resident Jae Lee, a second chance to stay in the United States after bad advice from his lawyer led him to plead guilty, leading to Lee's deportation.  The twist here is that Lee's chances to win at trial were almost nil and therefore, he would get deported anyway.  So can a lawyer be ineffective for telling a defendant to plead guilty where the proof of guilt is overwhelming?

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his opinion for the court, said yes and explained that pleading guilty was a certain deportation and going to trial was an "almost" certain deportation.  Had Lee known this, he would have opted for trial even in the face of overwhelming odds.  I particularly liked NACDL's* amicus (available here), which explains that "funny things happen" at trial:

For all types of litigants, “there is no such thing as a sure winner . . . at trial” and “juries are inherently unpredictable.” Miller UK Ltd. v. Caterpillar, Inc., 17 F. Supp. 3d 711, 739–40 (N.D. Ill. 2014). Taking a case to trial may be more than just a “Hail Mary.” See Pet’r Br. at 30. Instead, it is a key part of criminal procedure that has nothing to do with “whimsy” or “caprice,” and everything to do with putting the government to its proof. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 695 (1984).
Funny things happen on the way to, and at, the forum.12 The annals of criminal law are replete with unexpected developments and shocking results in the courtroom. A variety of factors influence a jury ver- dict, or a non-verdict. Trial practices affect trial out- comes. For example, juror note taking practices, the jury’s ability to ask the witnesses questions, the jury’s opportunity to discuss evidence before delibera- tion, jury instructions, juror sequestration, and the length of the deliberations may affect the outcome of a trial. Paula L. Hannaford-Agor, When all eyes are watching: Trial characteristics and practices in noto- rious trials, 91 Judicature 197, 200 (2008). Mr. Lee may reasonably weigh these factors, as well as those that affect a hung jury, against accepting his plea bargain. See Paula Hannaford-Agor et al., Why Do Hung Juries Hang? 251 Nat’l Inst. Justice J. 25, 26– 27 (July 2004). Many factors influence a hung jury, separate from jury nullification—the quality of the evidence, the degree to which jurors believe that the law they are instructed to apply is fair, and the jury deliberation process. Id. For example, a survey in the early 2000s revealed “39 percent of potential white jurors and 50 percent of potential black jurors would be ’very willing’ or ‘mostly willing’ to acquit, despite evidence of guilt, in a first-time, nonviolent drug pos- session case.” DeBartolo, 790 F.3d at 779 (citing Lawrence D. Bobo and Victor Thompson, “Racialized Mass Incarceration: Poverty, Prejudice, and Punishment,” in Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century 343 (Hazel R. Markus & Paula Moya eds., 2010) (Fig. 12.9)).
*Full disclosure -- I am on NACDL's Supreme Court amicus committee, but did not participate in this brief.

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