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Ineffective Assistance of Counsel if CRC-Unqualified?

Some people believe that all lawyers are basically the same.  The only way to distinguish one from another is his or her fee.

He or she who hires an inexperienced attorney can pay dearly for the rest of one’s life for the attorney fees saved in the short term.  The following summary of a January 30, 2020 California Supreme Court ruling exemplifies this reality.
The Gist of this Article: The performance of a second-year attorney in a death penalty case was not ineffective assistance of counsel under the rather generous, ambiguous standards afforded to counsel under California law.
Jesse James Hollywood, a wealthy drug dealer, ordered his associate, Robert Hoyt, to kill Nick Markowitz, age 15, over an unpaid drug debt Nick’s brother, Ben, owed to Hollywood.  Robert also owed Hollywood money for drugs he purchased from Hollywood to resell, but could not sell for enough money to repay Hollywood.  

Ben was supposed to have sold illegal drugs for Hollywood, but failed to do so.  As a result, Ben owed Hollywood $1,200 and their relationship suffered over this debt.  

Robert Hoyt followed Hollywood’s orders, kidnapping Markowitz on August 6, 2000 from Santa Barbara and ultimately killing him on August 9, 2000.  Hollywood then indeed forgave his debt.

When Hoyt was arrested, he confessed to police after being Mirandized.  He then hired Cheri Owen, who had been admitted to the State Bar for only two years prior to trial.  During trial, she missed appearances because she was at the State Bar attending her own professional disciplinary hearings.  She ultimately resigned her license to practice law, with charges pending against her.  She was admitted to the bar in June 1999 and resigned on April 17, 2002.

California Supreme Court San FranciscoCalifornia Supreme Court San Francisco

Robert Hoyt was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Mr. Hoyt appealed his conviction on multiple grounds, but this article will only cover his argument of ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) by Ms. Owen, which was one of several arguments in support of a motion for new trial.

The California Supreme Court, in ruling on this issue, noted from the outset that IAC claims are “more appropriately decided in a habeas corpus proceeding.”  People v. Mendoza Tello (1997) 15 Cal.4th 264, 266-267.  However, it acknowledged that such arguments may be raised in a motion for new trial, and, to expedite justice, a trial court should rule “if the court is able to determine the effectiveness of counsel.”  People v. Fosselman (1983) 33 Cal.3d 572, 582-583.

The Supreme Court the explained that to make out a claim that counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance, “the defendant must first show that counsel’s performance was deficient, in that it fell below an objective standard of reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.  Second, the defendant must show resulting prejudice, i.e., a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s deficient performance, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different.”  People v. Mai (2013) 57 Cal.4th 986, 1009.  

To make out an ineffective assistance of counsel claim on the basis of the trial record, the defendant must show “(1) the record affirmatively discloses counsel had no rational tactical purpose for the challenged act or omission, (2) counsel was asked for a reason and failed to provide one, or (3) there simply could be no satisfactory explanation.  All other claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are more appropriately resolved in a habeas corpus proceeding.”  Mai, supra.

Turning to Owen, the Supreme Court acknowledged that Owen’s professional experience and qualifications did not satisfy the criteria for appointed trial counsel in a capital case.  See California Rules of Court, rule 4.117.  

However, the Supreme Court observed that Owen was never appointed by the court.  She was privately retained.  Moreover, while she was absent during portions of voir dire and the penalty phase, she was available “during most of the trial.”  “Owen made arguments and objections; she presented witnesses.”  

In sum, the trial record did not alone establish that Owen’s performance fell below professional norms and that there is a reasonable probability that her deficient performance affected the result.

Consequently, Mr. Hoyt did not make such a necessary showing.  The trial court, the Supreme Court found, did not err in concluding it could not determine counsel was ineffective in the context of defendant’s new trial motion.

The citation for the California Supreme Court ruling discussed above is People v. Ryan Jamest Hoyt (2020) 8 Cal. 5th 892, 257 Cal. Rptr. 3d 784, 456 P. 3d 933.                                 

For more information about ineffective assistance of counsel, please click on the following articles:

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