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Let's go to NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg for her report on arguments today before the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue is whether a plea deal stands if it was based on a lawyer's bad advice or unethical conduct.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: On TV most criminal cases are tried before a jury. But in reality, more than 90 percent of all criminal cases in the United States never see a jury. They're resolved with a plea bargain. For the state, these bargains save money and resources, and often include agreements that the defendant will help prosecutors make other cases.
But plea bargains have also been criticized as a boon for real criminals who have information to bargain with, while little guys can get mauled by the system.
Both cases before the Supreme Court today involve defendants who claim they were mauled, not by the system, but by their own lawyers. And in both cases, the defendants claim that their lawyers' conduct was so bad that it amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel, denying them the legal help that the constitution says they're entitled to when facing criminal charges.
The first case involves a Missouri college student named Galin Frye, picked up repeatedly for driving while his license was revoked. The fourth time he was picked up, he was charged with a felony because of his prior offenses. But the prosecutor sent his lawyer a letter offering to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor if Frye would plead guilty and agree to a 90-day sentence.
The lawyer, however, never informed Frye of the offer, and after a month it expired. Frye, knowing nothing of the prosecutor's willingness to cut him a deal, eventually pleaded guilty without any conditions and was sentenced to three years in prison.
Nobody disputes in this case that Frye's original lawyer violated a legal duty to keep his client informed of plea offers. And nobody denies Frye ended up with a sentence more than ten times longer than he likely would've gotten had he accepted the misdemeanor plea offer.
His new lawyer, a public defender, will argue today that part of any defense is the conduct of plea negotiations, and that by failing to tell Frye about the prosecutor's offer, the first lawyer denied Frye the effective assistance of counsel guaranteed by the constitution.
Prosecutors, however, will counter that the constitution doesn't guarantee any right to a plea bargain. It only guarantees a right to a fair trial. And that since Frye pleaded guilty anyway, he wasn't denied a fair trial,
Similar arguments will be made in a second case involving clearly erroneous advice from a lawyer. A Michigan man named Anthony Cooper shot a woman in the thigh and buttocks and was charged with assault with intent to murder.
Twice, prior to trial, prosecutors offered to reduce the charge with a recommended prison term of roughly four to seven years. But Cooper's lawyer advised him to reject the offer because the lawyer said that under Michigan law Cooper could not be convicted of attempted murder for wounds below the waist.
That advice was indisputably wrong. And Cooper was convicted and sentenced to three times as much jail time as he would have served under the plea offer.
A federal appeals court subsequently ruled that the lawyer's clearly faulty advice denied Cooper the right to make an informed choice on whether to accept the plea or risk a trial. But the state appealed, contending that since Cooper concedes he got a fair trial, he has no valid claim, as there's no constitutional right to a plea bargain.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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