SCOTUSblog: Burt v. Titlow
Argument: Oct 8 2013 (Aud.)
Background: Titlow was implicated for participation in a plot (with her Aunt Billie) to murder her uncle. Her first lawyer negotiated a plea deal (a 7-to-15-year sentence, on the conditions that she plead guilty, submit to a lie-detector test, testify against Billie at trial, and not challenge the prosecutor's recommended sentencing range on appeal). After the court accepted the plea agreement, but before sentencing, Titlow spoke with Eric Ott, a sheriff's deputy assigned to the jail, who advised her not to plead guilty if she believed that she was innocent. She ultimately brought on a new attorney who withdrew her guilty plea, but the attorney soon withdrew (he did not obtain Titlow's file, inspect the government's discovery materials, or speak with the previous attorney a half after the plea-withdrawal hearing). Titlow was found guilty by a jury of second degree murder and sentenced to 20-to-40 years. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed. Titlow then filed a habeas petition which the District Court denied. The Sixth Circuit granted the petition, finding that Titlow's second attorney was ineffective, in violation of the Sixth Amendment.
Issue: The questions before the Court are (1) Whether the Sixth Circuit failed to give appropriate deference to a Michigan state court under Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) in holding that defense counsel was constitutionally ineffective for allowing respondent to maintain his claim of innocence; (2) whether a convicted defendant’s subjective testimony that he would have accepted a plea but for ineffective assistance, is, standing alone, sufficient to demonstrate a reasonable probability that defendant would have accepted the plea; and (3) whether Lafler v. Cooper always requires a state trial court to resentence a defendant who shows a reasonable probability that he would have accepted a plea offer but for ineffective assistance, and to do so in such a way as to “remedy” the violation of the defendant’s constitutional right.
Holding: In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit because it failed to apply the “doubly deferential” standard of review recognized by the Court’s case law when it refused to credit the state court’s reasonable factual finding and assumed that counsel was ineffective where the record was silent. The impact of this decision is that the Supreme Court continues to reinforce the strong deference federal courts should give to state courts' fact finding, as mandated by AEDPA and Strickland, even when the record is sparse. Rather, a defendant must go beyond an otherwise-silent record and present sufficient evidence to overcome the presumptions of AEDPA and Strickland.