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Ineffective Counsel Plus Prejudice Needed to Withdraw Guilty Plea

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that a petitioner had to demonstrate a combination of ineffective counsel and prejudice to win an appeal to withdraw a guilty plea.

Gregory Payne pleaded guilty to four felony charges, including rape and detention of a 17-year-old boy. In light of his prior felony convictions, a state judge sentenced Payne to 50 years in prison.

In a collateral proceeding, Payne sought to set aside the plea, arguing that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his lawyer gave him incorrect advice about the sentence he could receive.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Payne's sentence this week.

When challenging the plea, Payne testified that his lawyer had told him that he could not receive more than 20 years' imprisonment, while under Indiana law the actual sentencing range ran from a low of 20 years to a maximum of 86. The lawyer testified that he could not remember what he had told Payne.

Because the lawyer did not remember whether he had told Payne that the maximum was 20 years, or only that he would try to persuade the judge of this, the Seventh Circuit assumed that Payne's professed understanding was correct.

Both the state appellate court and the federal district court affirmed for lack of prejudice, noting that Payne surely would have been convicted if he had gone to trial. By the courts' reasoning, it didn't matter what the lawyer said or what Payne believed; Payne would have served the time either way.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said this reasoning was erroneous, holding that a person who contends that ineffective assistance of counsel induced him to plead guilty establishes "prejudice" by demonstrating that, but for counsel's errors, he would have insisted on a trial.

The court, however, said Payne was not entitled to relief because the prejudice didn't deprive him of Sixth Amendment "counsel."

Payne's attorney's statements regarding sentencing would not, alone, be enough to prove prejudice because the trial judge conducted a thorough interrogation, which included a sentencing review, before accepting Payne's guilty plea. Furthermore, Payne told the trial judge that he had decided to plead guilty to spare the two juvenile victims the pain of testifying, and himself the embarrassment of hearing the details in open court; he did not mention the 20-year sentence.

While Judge Frank Easterbrook concedes that the trial judge could have avoided a collateral attack by asking if Payne had any expectations with regard to the effect his plea would have on sentencing, the judge asked a similar question: Why are you pleading guilty? Payne could have responded "because my sentence can't exceed 20 years." Instead, he expressed hope that "the Court won't ... kill me with time."

If you represent a client who pleaded guilty in reliance on incorrect advice from a former attorney, you must be able to demonstrate that your client was prejudiced by ineffective "counsel" as described by the Sixth Amendment to prevail.

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