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DC Cir. Remands (But Not Reflexively) Ineffective Counsel Claims

One half of a duo of allegedly drug dealing brothers may have a shot at overturning his conviction after the D.C. Circuit remanded his claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Since the D.C. Circuit allows that claim to be raised on appeal, but district courts are better suited for hearing it, almost any claim which asserts sufficient facts is entitled to remand -- though the court promises this isn't reflexive!

At trial, Maurice Williams was found guilty of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute. His brother, Ronald, faced similar charges, but the jury was hung on each of his counts. After a mistrial was declared, Ronald was retried and found guilty. On appeal he alleged, successfully enough for now, that his counsel failed to provide effective assistance, as required by the Sixth Amendment.

Easy Remand With Ineffective Counsel Claims

Ronald Williams challenged his conviction on multiple grounds. the most important, and only successful one, being ineffective assistance of counsel. Such claims can place courts in unusual positions. They are, in the D.C. Circuit, allowed to be raised first on direct appeal. Yet, under Supreme Court precedent, the district court is the forum best suited for the factual investigation needed to determine whether counsel performed adequately.

That means that to have an appeal remanded to district court, a defendant must simply show "colorable" claims of ineffective counsel. In the opinion, the D.C. Circuit went out of its way to say it doesn't "reflexively remand" when such claims are raised -- but it gets pretty close.

That's Not to Say He Doesn't Have a Point

Taken at face value, Williams' claims do show failings on the part of his trial counsel. First and foremost, Williams asserted that, following his mistrial and before his second trial, prosecutors extended him a favorable plea offer. Not that Williams would have known about it -- his counsel ignored the offer, informing him of it only on the first day of his new trial, long after it had expired. Similarly, Williams argued that his lawyer never explained to him the consequences of his "career offender" status. Had he known that being labeled a career offender would greatly increase his sentence, he would not have pursued trial, Williams argues.

Those are strong enough claims that the appeals court would not dismiss them outright. Of course, his lawyer's perspective would be needed to fully evaluate the claims, the D.C. Circuit held. Hence, the quick, but not reflexive, remand.

Williams may have a harder time at trial. Demonstrating ineffective assistance of counsel is notoriously difficult.

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