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Racist Defense Lawyer Not Enough for Habeas Relief

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

Appeals are often able to correct miscarriages of justice. Sadly, sometimes the appellate court is bound by precedent, and is powerless to do so.

Recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dealt with one such injustice in the Ellis v. Harrison matter. The defendant in the case, Ezzard Ellis, was represented by a racist attorney at trial. Sometime after Ellis was convicted, he discovered that his attorney was a racist and filed a habeas petition. The attorney's own daughters even provided evidence that their father was a racist. Unfortunately for Ellis, the court refused to grant his petition.

Represented by a Racist

As the ABA Journal explained in its coverage, prior precedent involving the same racist lawyer actually prevented them from granting relief in Ellis's case.

In 2001, the Ninth Circuit held in Mayfield v. Woodward that another inmate charging ineffective assistance of counsel (of the same attorney that represented Ellis) due to that attorney's racism wasn't entitled to relief unless it could be proven that the racist lawyer performed poorly because of the racism. The court noted that Ellis was unaware of his attorney's racist beliefs until after the representation concluded, and therefore that could not have been a basis for a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship. Further, the court explained that absent proof that racism "adversely affected [his] performance as counsel," Ellis could not win relief.

In a concurring opinion that really seems to hit the heart of judges' struggle with the issue, Judge Nguyen explains that the lawyer "made it clear that he did not care what happened to his black clients. [Thus it] would be impossible for anyone with such views to adequately represent a non-white defendant." She also explained that: "When examining the reasonableness of counsel's performance, we extend considerable deference to strategic choices. This deference is predicated on the assumption that counsel is acting in the client's best interest. For an attorney as deeply racist as [Ellis's counsel], that assumption is unfounded."

Judge Nguyen concluded by stating: "Because I cannot in good faith distinguish Ellis's case from Mayfield, I reluctantly concur in the opinion. Had we not been bound by Mayfield, I would have granted Ellis's petition."

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