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Ineffective Counsel? No Need to Explain Sentencing Variations

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

In a timely tie-in to this week's Supreme Court hearings in Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion last week in a plea bargain/ineffective counsel appeal.

Richard Newland claimed that his trial lawyer, Gary Tyack, provided ineffective assistance because he failed to explain "blow by blow" the difference between Newland's Guidelines range sentence if he pleaded guilty and his range after conviction on all counts after trial. The former was 66-76 months, the latter 101-111 months.

Newland rejected the plea deal, was convicted at trial, and was sentenced to 108 months in prison.

At an evidentiary hearing, the district court found that Tyack had not discussed the sentencing ranges in detail; Tyack even testified to that effect. But the court also found that Tyack had not done so because Newland had made clear that any plea deal which involved at least five years' imprisonment was a non-starter for him.

Since even the bottom end of the Guidelines range for Newland's plea deal exceeded that limit by six months, the district court concluded that Tyack's failure to discuss the ranges in detail did not prejudice Newland.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, finding no error in the district court's factual findings, upheld the district court's decision.

To prevail in his ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Newland needed to prove that the decision to reject the plea bargain would have been rational under the circumstances, and that he would have taken the deal if his lawyer had explained it to him.

Newland couldn't satisfy these criteria.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that Newland insisted before trial that the government wouldn't be able to make the charges stick, which is why he set the five-year cap for a plea bargain.

No attorney is insulated from an ineffective counsel challenge. (Gary Tyack, Newland's attorney, is now a Tenth District Court of Appeals judge, so we assume that he provided his clients with competent representation.) If you want to avoid being hauled into court to testify about ineffective assistance during the plea bargain phase of a client's adjudication, it appears you should err on the safe side and explain the sentencing guidelines variations, regardless of your client's stubbornness.

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