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Deficient counsel does not overcome convincing evidence

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Even though the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals spelled out in a 17-page opinion what defense counsel should have done during a bench trial, the appellate panel ultimately concluded the deficient representation did not prejudice the case.

Roy Smith appealed the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana’s denial of his habeas petition to set aside his criminal conviction because of ineffective counsel. In Roy A. Smith v. Richard Brown, 12-3731, the 7th Circuit affirmed the denial of the habeas petition.

Smith, serving a 90-year sentence for murder in an Indiana state prison, was charged with attempted murder and aggravated battery after correctional officers saw him stab another inmate with half a pair of scissors.

James Cupp was appointed as Smith’s public defender. Smith continually complained to the trial court about Cupp’s performance, claiming the attorney was not filing the motions he wanted and was not communicating with him.

After he was convicted, Smith obtained a review by the Indiana Court of Appeals which found defense counsel did not mount a defense but ruled Smith had failed to show any prejudice from Cupp’s performance. Smith then filed a petition for post-conviction relief which was also denied.

The District Court considered Smith’s habeas petition and agreed with the Court of Appeals that Cupp’s behavior did not prejudice Smith.

At the 7th Circuit, the judges faulted Cupp on multiple counts. It noted at trial, the defense attorney failed to explore Smith’s self-defense motive, did not point out inconsistencies between the testimonies of two guards, and did not highlight to the trial court that none of the other inmates provided testimony and the victim himself refused to identify his attacker.

Moreover, the 7th Circuit criticized Cupp for offering a closing argument that was a little more than “just a throat-clearing exercise.”

However, the appellate panel pointed out the evidence was overwhelming against Smith, and Cupp did not abandon his client nor egregiously fail in his representation of the defendant.

“… against the overwhelming weight of the state’s evidence, he did not have many promising options,” Judge John Tinder wrote for the court. “Considering prejudice, or its absence, is particularly important when a lawyer’s deficient representation is at least in part influenced by the utter weakness of the defendant’s case.”

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