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No Cumulative Prejudice Shown for Habeas Petition

In the fall of 1988, twenty-two-year-old Kurt Michaels lived in an apartment in Oceanside, California, with four housemates.  At the time, he was dating sixteen-year-old Christina Clemons, then confined in an adolescent drug rehabilitation facility.

Christina’s mother, JoAnn Clemons, lived in nearby Escondido.  Christina testified at trial that she had been physically and sexually abused by her mom.  Even at age sixteen, she had been subject to this abuse when her mom hit her over the head with a cast iron pan and forced her to engage in digital penetration and oral sex.

On release from the drug treatment facility for a weekend, she stayed with Mr. Michaels and told him she wanted her mother killed.  Christina warned Mr. Michaels that she would commit suicide if her mother was not killed. 

One of Mr. Michaels’ housemates overheard Mr. Michaels talking with Christine when he said, “Now we can knock off the old lady” and Christina responded, “And then we can get the money.”

The next day, Mr. Michaels asked his housemate, Mark Hebert, if he wanted to “do a tax,” meaning to collect a debt through the use of force or the threat of force.  Mr. Michaels promised Mr. Hebert a share of the proceeds, which Mr. Michaels explained was a $100,000 life insurance policy that JoAnn Clemons had.  Mr. Hebert also recruited a friend, Darren Popik, to come along.

At the last minute, Mr. Hebert decided not to participate, but Mr. Popik remained committed.

Once they were inside JoAnn Clemons’ apartment, with Ms. Clemons sleeping, Mr. Popik tried to leave, but Mr. Michaels prevented him from leaving.  Mr. Michaels then stabbed Ms. Clemons in her back, breaking the knife.  Mr. Popik went to Ms. Clemons’ kitchen and got another knife.  Mr. Michaels then cut her throat.

Neighbors heard a struggle ensuing and called the police, but Mr. Michaels and Mr. Popik escaped via a balcony as police entered the apartment.  Police arrested Mr. Michaels about two weeks later.

During a two-and-a-half-hour taped police interrogation, Mr. Michaels told police, when asked if he wanted to proceed with the interview, he said: “I don’t know if I should without an attorney.”  Police pressured him to continue without an attorney and he did, confessing in detail to the murder.

Mr. Michaels was charged with capital murder of JoAnn Clemons with four special circumstances (financial gain, lying in wait, robbery and burglary), robbery; and burglary.  All three counts alleged the use of a knife and the infliction of great bodily injury.

During the preliminary hearing, Mr. Michaels passed a note to his attorney stating that he would commit violence against his then-co-defendant Popik if he was not reseated farther away from Mr. Michaels.  His attorney then showed the note to the prosecution and asked that the seating arrangement in court be changed.

At trial in 1990, Mr. Michaels was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.  On an automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court, the conviction and sentence was affirmed.

After this, Mr. Michaels filed a state court petition for writ of habeas corpus, arguing that he was illegally held because the trial court erred in admitting his taped confession after he asserted his right to an attorney in violation of the Fifth Amendment and Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 384 U.S. 436.  Mr. Michaels also alleged that his attorney committed ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) and violated the attorney-client privilege by showing his note written during the preliminary hearing to the prosecutor.  Mr. Michaels claimed that the cumulative effect of these errors meant the court should issue a writ ordered his release. 

The writ went up to the California Supreme Court and was denied in a one-page order.

Mr. Michaels then filed the same basis petition in federal district court, which also denied the claim.  He then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.

The Ninth Circuit also denied the writ, explaining that Mr. Michael did not unequivocally invoke his right to an attorney.  The court also agreed that Mr. Michael’s attorney did violate the attorney-client privilege by sharing the note, but the effect was harmless.

The appeals court explained that a writ of habeas corpus will only be issued if the constitutional error had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the verdict and agreed that the cumulative effect of multiple errors may be prejudicial even if no single error in isolation sufficiently established prejudice.  Williams v. Filson (2018) 908 F. 3d 546, at 570.

The Ninth Circuit acknowledged that an erroneously admitted confession rarely has little effect on a jury, but here, in this case, there was overwhelming evidence of Mr. Michaels’ guilt otherwise and the error, even if it was erroneously admitted, was harmless.

The court further acknowledged the attorney-client violation could be significant, as “even some toxins in small doses are deadly,” but here, there was no prejudice to Mr. Michaels.

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Mr. Michael’s petition as well.

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