Case: Montejo v. Louisiana

Date: Tuesday Jan. 13, 2009

Issue: When an indigent defendant's right to counsel has attached and counsel has been appointed, must the defendant take additional affirmative steps to accept the appointment in order to secure the protections of the Sixth Amendment and preclude police-initiated interrogation without counsel present?

Background: Jesse Jay Montejo of Louisiana was convicted of killing and robbing a small business owner in 2002. In the days after the murder, investigators with the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office aggressively questioned Montejo about his role in the case. Montejo and his lawyers argue that questioning went beyond aggressive to unconstitutional. After his initial court appearance, Montejo was appointed legal counsel. But he had not met with his lawyer when investigators conducted a follow-up interrogation that included a ride in a police car. Montejo told the investigators he had a lawyer he wanted to meet with but they told him he had no such lawyer and proceeded with the interrogation.

The evidence gathered from that police ride-along, including a letter of apology written to the victim's family, was used against Montejo at trial. His lawyers claim that evidence should have been suppressed because it was gathered in violation of Montejo's Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The Louisiana Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that Montejo never formally accepted his appointed counsel at his initial court appearance and as such his rights were not violated by the subsequent police interrogation.

Case: Vermont v. Brillon

Date: Tuesday Jan. 13, 2009

Issue: Whether delays caused solely by a defendant and his public defender(s) can arise to a speedy-trial right violation, and be charged against the state on the theory that public defenders are paid by the state; and whether the right to counsel should result in broader speedy-trial rights to indigent defendants than defendants who are able to retain private counsel.

Background: A Vermont prosecutor says his state's criminal justice system has been thrown into chaos because of a decision from that state's Supreme Court. The decision, made early last year, held that the numerous delays sought by Michael Brillon and his court-appointed counsel violated his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. The outrage of the Bennington County State's Attorney's office jumps off the pages in its brief to the Supreme Court. "By firing three lawyers, Brillon essentially won the lottery with a 'get out of jail free card' made entirely by his own doing."

Brillon was arrested for hitting his girlfriend in 2001. Because he was already convicted of three felonies he faced up to life in prison. After his conviction he was only sentenced to a term of 12-20 years behind bars, but that conviction didn't happen for almost three years after his arrest. Those delays were caused by repeated changes in Brillon's court-appointed counsel. By the time of his conviction, Brillon was represented by his sixth public defender. The Vermont Supreme Court determined that Brillon's speedy trial rights were violated by the revolving door of lawyers — some of whom Brillion himself fired. It concluded that because the lawyers were court-appointed and therefore part of the government "a significant portion [of blame] is attributable to the criminal justice system provided by the state."

Case: Knowles v. Mirzayance

Date: Tuesday Jan. 13, 2009

Issue: Did the Ninth Circuit again exceed its authority by granting habeas relief without considering whether the state-court adjudication of the claim was unreasonable under clearly established federal law based on its previous conclusion that trial counsel was required to proceed with an affirmative insanity defense because it was the only defense available and despite the absence of a Supreme Court decision addressing the point? And may a federal appellate court substitute its own factual findings and credibility determinations for those of a district court without determining whether the district courts findings were clearly erroneous?

Background: Alexandre Mirzayance killed his 19-year-old cousin. His lawyer originally planned an insanity defense but determined that the same jury that convicted his client of first-degree murder would not in the second phase of the trial accept that defense. Instead, Mirzayance's lawyer persuaded him to accept a sentencing plea of 29 years to life behind bars. Mirzayance appealed his conviction citing ineffective counsel but found no success in the California courts. But in federal court the Ninth Circuit ruled in his favor believing that the lawyer acted "rashly" and effectively denied Mirzayance his chance to present an affirmative defense. This is the second time the state of California has appealed the Ninth Circuit's ruling. The Supreme Court vacated the decision and sent it back to the Ninth Circuit for further review. But the lower court reached the same conclusion and California has once again appealed to the Supreme Court.