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Chester v. Horn

United States District Court, Third Circuit

May 22, 2013

FRANK ROBERT CHESTER, Petitioner,
v.
COMMISSIONER MARTIN HORN; PHILIP JOHNSON; JOSEPH P. MAZURKIEWICZ; and THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY OF BUCKS COUNTY Respondents.

MEMORANDUM

C. DARNELL JONES, II, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Presently before this Court is Petitioner Frank Robert Chester's claim that throughout his murder trial, counsel was laboring under a conflict of interest that effectively denied Petitioner his 6th Amendment right to counsel.[1]

A. Background

In 1987, Petitioner and his co-defendant were charged with the brutal slaying of Anthony Milano in Bristol, Pennsylvania. On March 22, 1988, Petitioner retained Attorney Thomas Edwards, who entered his appearance the following day. On March 29, 1988, Edwards was arrested for driving under the influence ("DUI"). On May 20, 1988, Petitioner was found guilty and the death sentence was imposed. It wasn't until June 7, 1988, after Edwards had already filed post-trial motions on behalf of Petitioner that Edwards was formally charged with DUI and was being prosecuted by the same Assistant District Attorney and before the same judge as those involved in Petitioner's murder trial. On July 15, 1988, while Petitioner's post-trial motions were pending before Judge Biester, Edwards pled "not guilty" to the DUI charge, in front of Judge Biester. Because this was Mr. Edwards's first DUI offense, he was eligible for the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Program (ARD). ARD was a diversionary program of leniency offered only to first time offenders and the District Attorney's office had sole authority in choosing whether to allow Mr. Edwards into the program. On September 15, 1988, Mr. Edwards was admitted into the ARD program by the Honorable Edward G. Biester, Jr., On June 29, 1989, Judge Biester denied Petitioner's Post-Verdict Motions.

Although Petitioner's claim of a conflict of interest is primarily based upon the fact that Edwards had a criminal charge pending against him in Bucks County at the same time that he represented Petitioner, Petitioner also asks this Court to consider evidence pertaining to Edward's personal financial struggles, legal battles, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and the illness of his wife at the time of Petitioner's trial, to demonstrate that Edwards's loyalties were divided and that a conflict of interest existed which adversely affected his representation and the ultimate outcome of the case. For the reasons set forth hereinbelow, Petitioner's conflict of interest claim shall be denied.

II. Discussion

A. The law of "Conflict of Interest"

Early Supreme Court cases regarding conflicts of interest focused on "multiple representation" claims, where one attorney was representing multiple co-defendants. If a party could show that multiple representation led to ineffective assistance of counsel, prejudice was presumed regardless of whether it was independently shown. Holloway v. Arkansas, 435 U.S. 475, 489 (1978).

Two years later, the Supreme Court addressed two issues reserved in Holloway : (1) whether a trial judge must inquire into the propriety of multiple representation even though no party lodges an objection, and (2) whether the mere possibility of a conflict of interest warrants the conclusion that the defendant was deprived of his right to counsel. Cuyler v. Sullivan, 446 U.S. at 335, 345 (1980). First, the Court held that a trial court does not need to perform a sua sponte inquiry into conflict of interest unless "the trial court knows or reasonably should know that a particular conflict exists." Sullivan, 446 U.S. at 349. Second, the mere possibility of conflict is not sufficient; rather, a defendant must show that his counsel actively represented conflicting interests. Sullivan, 446 U.S. at 350.

The Third Circuit clarified its understanding of Sullivan by requiring a defendant to prove that an alleged conflict of interest on the basis of mixed representation adversely affected counsel's performance. U.S. v. Gambino, 864 F.2d 1064, 1072 (3d Cir. 1988). To prove this adverse effect on counsel's performance, a defendant must (1) demonstrate that some plausible alternative defense strategy or tactic might have been pursued; and (2) establish that the alternative defense was inherently in conflict with or not undertaken due to the attorney's other loyalties or interests. Gambino, 864 F.2d at 1070 (quoting United States v. Fahey, 769 F.2d 829, 836 (1st Cir. 1985)).

In 2002, the Supreme Court expanded the Sullivan test to conflict of interest claims where the defense counsel was simultaneously representing the victim. Mickens v. Taylor, 535 U.S. 162 (2002). The court established that to prove actual conflict of interest, a defendant must show that it was a "conflict that affected counsel's performance -as opposed to a mere theoretical division of loyalties." Mickens, 535 U.S. at 171. "[D]efects in assistance that have no probable effect upon the trial's outcome do not establish a constitutional violation." Mickens, 535 U.S. at 166.

Therefore, the threshold question becomes whether or not the trial court knew or had reason to know that a particular conflict existed and if so, whether the trial court performed the appropriate inquiry. Sullivan, 446 U.S. at 349. When the trial judge is not aware of the conflict, and thus not obligated to inquire, prejudice will be presumed only if the conflict has significantly affected counsel's performance-thereby rendering the verdict unreliable, even though Strickland prejudice cannot be shown." Mickens, 535 U.S. at 172-73. To prove an actual conflict of interest, a defendant must show that the conflict adversely affected the defense and had a probable effect on the trial's outcome. Mickens, 535 U.S. at 171; Gambino, 864 F.2d at 1072.

While Mickens expanded the definition of conflict of interest to include the issue of defense counsel also representing the victim, the court did not explicitly establish whether the test in Sullivan should be expanded to all conflict of interest claims. Of particular note, the Supreme Court has not accepted any case based on a conflict of interest theory related to the defense counsel's pending criminal charges. As such, the determination for whether or not to apply the Holloway / Sullivan / Mickens test to a conflict of interest claim about the counsel's pending criminal charges must be determined by analyzing precedent from the Third Circuit.

The claim before this Court involves an alleged conflict of interest that led to ineffective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment.[2] The Supreme Court has recognized that "the right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance of counsel." McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 759, 771 (1970). "The Sixth Amendment guarantee of effective assistance of counsel includes two correlative rights, the right to adequate representation by an attorney of reasonable competence and the right to the attorney's undivided loyalty free of conflict of interest." Gambino, 864 F.2d 1064, 1069 (3d Cir. 1988) ( quoting Wood v. Georgia, 450 U.S. 261, 271 (1981)); see also Government of Virgin Islands v. Zepp, 748 F.2d 125, 131 (3d Cir.1984).

Prior to the Supreme Court's decision in Mickens, the Third Circuit held that the Holloway / Sullivan standard applied to conflict of interest cases beyond mixed representation claims. In Zepp, the defendant argued that her counsel had an actual conflict of interest due to (1) his potential liability for the same charges on which she was tried and (2) the fact that he was a witness for the prosecution. Zepp, 748 F.2d at 127. This was an issue of first impression for the court. Id. ("The typical conflict of interest cases giving rise to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel involve multiple representation of clients..."). The court held that for any conflict of interest claim under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant must demonstrate an actual conflict of interest; not simply the potential for a conflict of interest. Zepp, 748 F.2d at 136. Moreover, the potential pending criminal liability for aiding the defendant was not deemed per se actual conflict. In Zepp, the court found that there was an actual conflict of interest because counsel's potential criminal liability implicated the defendant's case. Zepp, 748 F.2d at 136. The court found that the fact that defense counsel became a prosecution witness was clear evidence of an adverse, prejudicial impact on defendant's case. Zepp, 748 F.2d at 139.

The test for adverse impact outlined in Zepp was not overruled, but rather confirmed, by Mickens.

B. The Third Circuit Utilizes The Sullivan / Mickens Test For Conflict Of Interest Claims Where Defense Counsel Has Pending Criminal Charges, Instead Of A Per Se Rule.

Although the Third Circuit has not specified the standard for conflict of interest claims involving pending criminal charges since the Supreme Court's Mickens decision, [3] Zepp renders it appropriate to consider this question under the Sullivan / Mickens test.

Clearly, counsel's pending criminal charges may be appropriately considered as a potential conflict of interest because:

It may induce the lawyer to pull his punches in defending his client lest the prosecutor's office be angered by an acquittal and retaliate against the lawyer. Such retaliation would be unethical; but still the defense lawyer may fear it, at least to the extent of tempering the zeal of his defense of his client somewhat.

Thompkins, 965 F.2d at 332 ( citing Wood v. Georgia, 450 U.S. 261, 272 (1981)); Ferri v. Ackerman, 444 U.S. 193, 204 ("[A]n indispensable element of the effective performance of [an attorney's] responsibilities is the ability to act independently of the Government and to oppose it in adversary litigation.").

C. Trial Court's Discretion To Permit Counsel To Continue Representing A Defendant When Counsel Has Pending Criminal Charges In The Same Jurisdiction.

As briefly discussed hereinabove, a trial court need only inquire into a conflict of interest when it "knows or reasonably should know that a particular conflict exists." Sullivan, 446 U.S. at 349. For example, the Supreme Court held that a trial court should have inquired into whether an actual conflict of interest existed when an employer hired defense counsel for employees charged with a crime committed in the commission of their job. Wood v. Georgia, 450 U.S. 261, 267 (1981). It was determined that the failure of the trial court to recognize and analyze this clear, potential conflict merited a remand to the District Court to determine whether there was an actual conflict of interest. Wood, 450 U.S. at 273-74.

The Third Circuit has neither adopted an automatic reversal standard, [4] nor established its own threshold inquiry into actual conflict of interest for cases in which the trial court knew or should have known of a potential conflict of interest.

In this case, while Judge Biester arguably knew or should have known that a potential conflict existed, the timing of occurrences cannot be ignored. Petitioner's trial counsel, Thomas Edwards, was charged with a DUI and was being prosecuted by the same ADA and before the same judge as those involved in Petitioner's murder trial. Attorney Edwards was retained by Defendant on March 22, 1988, and entered his appearance the following day. On March 29, 1988, Edwards was arrested for a DUI. On May 20, 1988, Petitioner was found guilty and the death sentence was imposed. However, it wasn't until June 7, 1988 - after Edwards had already filed post-trial motion on behalf of Petitioner - that Edwards was formally charged with DUI. On July 15, 1988, while Petitioner's post-trial motions were pending before Judge Biester, Edwards pled "not guilty" to the DUI charge, in front of Judge Biester.

The only Third Circuit cases providing guidance during the relevant timeframe of the instant matter, were Zepp and DeFalco. Both are clearly distinguishable from the present case. In Zepp, the alleged crime was in furtherance of a cover-up of defendant's crime and he was called as a prosecutorial witness because of the alleged crime. In contrast, in this case, defense counsel's DUI was wholly unrelated to defendant's case. Furthermore, in DeFalco, potential for actual conflict was found because the plea agreement disbarred counsel, directly hindering defense's case. In contrast, in this case, the agreement made by defense counsel in no way prevented him from serving as defendant's lawyer or disbarred him from the profession. Thus, absent any Third Circuit guidance regarding what constitutes a threshold inquiry, Judge Biester cannot be deemed to have abused his discretion in allowing Mr. Edwards to continue to serve as Petitioner's counsel. The court must assume that "[d]efense counsel is in the best position to determine if a conflict exists." Mickens, 535 U.S. at 167-68; see also Model R. Prof'l Conduct 1.7(a) - (b).[5]

D. Analysis of Petitioner's Conflict Claim

As discussed in detail above, Petitioner herein must demonstrate an actual conflict of interest that adversely affected his defense. Thus, the mere fact that defense counsel had been arrested and was seeking entry into the ARD program for DUI in the same court in which Petitioner's murder trial was being prosecuted, does not constitute a per se conflict of interest.[6] Instead, Petitioner must demonstrate that there was an adverse impact, which had a probable negative effect on his case. As such, Petitioner must demonstrate that Attorney Edwards's pending ARD arrangement in some way affected his trial strategy or preparation in Petitioner's case. In doing so, Petitioner must show actual actions, or inactions, that counsel took or failed to take because of his pending ARD arrangement. To succeed in this claim, the "lapse in representation" must be "so egregious as to violate objective standards for attorney performance." United States v. Gambino, 864 F.2d 1064, 1070 (3d Cir. 1988). These failings must be the result of the conflict of interest. For example, an attorney's decision to call or subpoena witnesses is a matter of trial strategy to be analyzed under the ineffective assistance of counsel standard of Strickland and does not necessarily reflect a conflict of interest without a showing that the trial decision was caused by the conflict. Gibbs v. Phelps, 07-CR-36, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38467, at *6 (D. Del. May 9, 2008).

Therefore, the mere existence of a pending criminal charge does not necessarily demonstrate a conflict of interest. To that end, this Court cannot ignore the relatively benign nature of the "pending criminal charge" against Mr. Edwards, which Petitioner submits caused a division of loyalty and ultimately led to a conflict that adversely affected him. Clearly, a DUI offense in which the standard punishment is entry into a rehabilitative treatment program cannot be compared to more serious offenses in which the possibility of a career-ending conviction rests in the hands of a zealous prosecutor. Again, Petitioner's trial had already ended and he had already been sentenced to death by the time Edwards officially appeared before Judge Biester on the DUI charge.

In further support of his conflict claim, counsel for Petitioner submitted an Affidavit that bore the signature of Attorney Thomas Edwards. During an evidentiary hearing on this issue, counsel presented the testimony of Attorney Edwards via live video and Edwards denied many of the statements contained within the affidavit. Again, many of these facts had to do with Mr. Edwards's personal life as it existed at the time he represented Petitioner. Current counsel for Petitioner claim that these statements contained within the affidavit were the words of Mr. Edwards, and were signed off by Mr. Edwards in the presence of a witness. Respondents argue that these statements constitute hearsay under Federal Rule of Evidence 803 because the defense counsel denied them in court, denied signing them, and alleged that they were the words of current counsel. Accordingly, Respondents argue that the statements contained within the affidavit should not be admitted into substantive evidence.

This Court finds that the affidavit at issue does in fact constitute hearsay and does not satisfy any exception to the hearsay rule, including the "catch-all" provision contained within Rule 807. This Court had the opportunity to assess Mr. Edwards's demeanor and testimony first-hand. At the end of the day, nothing Petitioner has provided to this Court establishes that a conflict of interest existed which deprived Petitioner of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The existence of potentially different trial strategies that might have been employed by counsel is not enough. Instead, Petitioner must demonstrate that the pending DUI charge against Edwards caused him to adversely change his trial strategy and/or fail to employ certain methods in his trial strategy. Petitioner has failed to do so.

III. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth hereinabove, Petitioner's Conflict of Interest claim shall be denied.

An appropriate Order follows.


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