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Lawyer’s Bad Advice About Plea Gets Defendant Federal Relief

Oct. 9, 2019, 3:18 PM

A lawyer provided ineffective assistance of counsel when he told a client facing life without parole in prison for aiding and abetting murder that he didn’t need a plea deal, the Sixth Circuit said in a split decision.

Marvin Barnett’s egregious misunderstanding of the law, coupled with his determination that Curtis Byrd go to trial, was the root of the problem, the opinion by Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey said.

The district court was directed to grant Byrd federal relief unless “state court proceedings consistent with this opinion are reopened within 180 days,” it said.

Byrd and his girlfriend, Charletta Atkinson, planned to rob a man at a bank ATM. Byrd backed out of the plan, but Atkinson took the gun and killed the victim.

Atkinson pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison, but Byrd was convicted.

Although the prosecutor’s office handling Byrd’s case prefers plea deals, it waits for defense counsel to request one, the court said.

Barnett told Byrd he didn’t need a deal because he abandoned the crime and therefore wasn’t going to prison. Under Michigan law, that proposition was “flatly wrong,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit said Oct. 8.

There is no right to a plea offer. Consequently, a defendant who alleges that ineffective assistance of counsel prevented plea negotiations must demonstrate a reasonable probability that, but for his counsel’s errors, he would have received a plea offer.

The defendant also must show he would have accepted the offer, the prosecutor wouldn’t have rescinded it, and the court would have accepted it, the court said.

On the basis of a “thoroughly unreasonable misunderstanding of the law,” Barnett, who has since been disbarred for an unrelated matter, advised Byrd incorrectly, dismissed his inquiries about a plea, and “single-mindedly pursued a near-impossible chance at acquittal,” the court said.

As a result, Byrd was deprived of an opportunity to negotiate a plea that sworn testimony confirmed was available if requested, and was likely to be accepted, it said.

Judge Deborah L. Cook joined the opinion.

Dissenting Judge Richard A. Griffin said the majority’s expansion of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to unoffered plea deals can’t be reconciled with prior precedent.

The Law Office of Elizabeth L. Jacobs represented Byrd. The Michigan Attorney General’s Office represented the state.

The case is Byrd v. Skipper, 2019 BL 385237, 6th Cir., No. 18-2021, 10/8/19.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bernie Pazanowski in Washington at bpazanowski@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bloomberglaw.com; Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com