Friday, March 24, 2006

Failure to Seek Funds for Expert Leads to Actual Conflict of Interest; Requires Vacation of Sentence

US v. Stitt: Stitt was convicted after a jury trial of three counts of murder related to an ongoing criminal enterprise, as well as related drug and firearm offenses. Following a penalty phase trial, the jury recommended that Stitt be sentenced to death, which he was. He directly appealed his sentence without success.

Stitt filed a petition under 28 USC 2255 seeking a new trial on both guilt and sentencing. The district court denied Stitt relief as to the guilt phase of his trial, but vacated Stitt's sentence. The district court found that Stitt's retained attorney at trial had an actual conflict of interest based on his failure to request the court to appoint an expert to assess Stitt's propensity for future dangerousness. Such a request would have required an examination by the district court of the fee arrangement between Stitt and his attorney, which the attorney sought to avoid (the Government claimed that his fees came from drug money). Applying the standard of Cuyler v. Sullivan, 446 U.S. 335 (1980), that prejudice is presumed when defense counsel has an actual conflict of interest in representing his client, the district court concluded that Stitt was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel.

The Government appealed, conceding that there was an actual conflict of interest between Stitt and his counsel, but that the Sullivan presumption of prejudice applied only to conflicts caused by simultaneous representation of multiple defendants. The Fourth Circuit rejected the Government's argument and affirmed the district court.

UPDATE: Opinion withdrawn and appeal dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

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