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4th Cir. Vacates Conviction Due to Napping Lawyer

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 18, 2016 6:57 AM

The Fourth Circuit reversed a criminal conviction last week because the defendant's lawyer snoozed through a significant portion of the trial. Nicholas Ragin had been convicted by a federal jury in Charlotte, North Carolina, and sentenced to 30 years for his involvement in prostitution and drug rings. But his lawyer, Nikita Mackey, napped through several parts of his trial.

The attorney's somnolence was so bad, the Fourth Circuit ruled, that Ragin did not need to show that he was actually prejudiced. So lawyers, before your next big trial, please get some sleep.

Yeah, You Can't Sleep and Be Effective

The Fourth Circuit decision doesn't just wipe out Ragin's conviction, it sets important precedent. Ragin's case presented a question of first impression in the circuit: whether a defendant is deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel when counsel sleeps during a substantial portion of the trial.

The answer, the Fourth Circuit found, is yes; nodding off for a "substantial portion" of a trial is enough to deny defendants their Sixth Amendment rights.

But there's more. Mackey's sleeping was so bad that prejudice could be presumed, relieving Ragin of the need to show that his attorney's performance was deficient enough to count as ineffective assistance of counsel.

"Ragin was thrown unarmed into the arena to face the gladiators without benefit of the assistance of counsel to which he had an absolute right," the court wrote.

How Bad Was It?

Mackey's courtroom naps don't appear to have been subtle, either. Ragin testified that Mackey slept for 10 minutes at a time, up to 20 different times during his trial. The naps were so common that Ragin complained to the judge directly about it. Ragin often, he claims, had to nudge Mackey to keep him awake during the trial, even when witnesses were testifying.

It's not just Ragin's word that the court had to rely on either. Mackey's napping was noticed by the attorneys of Ragin's codefendants and a government witness. Jurors even discussed the sleeping attorney during deliberations.

Mackey declined to comment on his sleeping but released a statement congratulating Ragin on his appellate success:

After spending countless hours from 2004 - 2006 preparing to defend my client and going through a three week trial I am extremely happy to learn that his appeal was successful!! [sic]

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