Monday, February 05, 2007

Court Clarifies Duties to Conflicting Clients

US v. Nicholson: Nicholson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. At the time of his arrest, Nicholson told police that he possessed the gun because he was fearful of Lorenzo Butts, who had previously threatened Nicholson and his family, attempted to kill Nicholson's brother, and had killed Nicholson's step father. Nicholson was sentenced to 189 months in prison as an armed career criminal.

Nicholson filed to vacate his sentence, under 28 U.S.C. 2255, based on ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing due to his defense counsel's conflict of interest. Specifically, at the time he represented Nicholson, Nicholson's counsel also represented Butts in an unrelated case. Nicholson argued that in order to argue for a downward departure at sentencing based on his fear of Butts because to do so would undermine his attorney's simultaneous representation of Butts. The district court denied Nicholson's petition, holding that Nicholson's attorney suffered from no actual conflict because the simultaneous representation of the two men was in unrelated cases.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. The court held that Nicholson's counsel did have an actual conflict of interest because the interests of Nichols and Butts were "in total opposition to each other" during the simultaneous representation. The court remanded for a determination of whether the conflict prejudiced Nichols, given that he received a sentence only 9 months higher than the mandatory minimum under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

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