Nicholson filed a 2255 alleging ineffective assistance of counsel due to a conflict of interest - during the time trial counsel represented Nicholson, he also represented Butts, the person who had made threats against Nicholson's life that led him to get a gun. Nicholson argued that conflict prevented counsel from using the threats in an argument for a lower sentence. The district court initially concluded that there was no conflict of interest, a conclusion that the Fourth Circuit rejected in 2007. On remand, the district court concluded that the conflict did not adversely affect trial counsel's performance and therefore denied Nicholson's motion.
The Fourth Circuit disagreed, again, and reversed the district court's holding. As for exactly what Nicholson was facing when he was arrested:
[H]is brother, Rudolph Nicholson, agreed in early 2000 to assist federal officers in their criminal investigation of Butts and his associates — prompting Butts to issue a series of threats against Rudolph and other Nicholson family members. On March 3, 2000, brother Rudolph was shot seven times by Butts’s son in Portsmouth, but survived the attack. Rudolph was treated for two months in a Norfolk, Virginia hospital,where a would-be assassin disguised as a priest — actually Butts himself — unsuccessfully attempted to enter Rudolph’s room and kill him. Around May 2000, federal officers informed Nicholson and his mother, Sandra Nicholson (whom Butts also threatened), that Butts had placed a contract on Nicholson’s life. On September 18, 2000, Nicholson’s stepfather, Charles Nicholson, was fatally shot multiple times on a Portsmouth street by Butts and his accomplices.(footnote omitted).
Applying the three-part test in Mickens v. Taylor, 240 F.3d 348, 361 (4th Cir. 2001), the court held that (1) there was a plausible alternative strategy that trial counsel could have pursued, (2) that strategy was objectively reasonable based on the facts of the case known to counsel at the time, and (3) counsel's failure to pursue that strategy was due to the conflict of interest. On the record there was "overwhelming evidence - believed and even endorsed by the Government - that Nicholson faced . . . a genuine threat of death." Thus, the court vacated Nicholson's sentence and remanded the case for resentencing before a different judge.
District Judge Neely dissented to the court's opinion only in its requirement that a new judge preside at the resentencing.