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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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  1. Your article is a good intro the recent amendments to Fed.R.Civ.P. For a much longer - though not necessarily better -- summary, counsel might want to read THE CHIEF UMPIRE IS CHANGING THE STRIKE ZONE, which I co-authored and which was just published in the January issue of THE VERDICT (the monthly publication of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association).

  2. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  3. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  4. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  5. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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