Had it not been for my lawyer I would be free…or not!

What constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel?

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

This blog considers State v. Palacios, decided July 3, 2014 by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division and addresses the question of how other evidence is used to fill in the blanks when a defendant claims memory loss of a failure to recall an incident, and what constitutes ineffective representation at trial. This case involves a defendant who entered a plea agreement pleading guilty to aggravated manslaughter and aggravated arson. The facts of the case were that the defendant strangled and beat his wife to death, and then set her body on fire, attempting to burn himself as well and in turn caused a fire. The home also housed other residents including his son. At trial the defendant admitted to causing the death of his wife, setting the fire, and knowledge that the house had other residents, but noted he did not intent to burn anything other than himself and his wife. The defendant could not provide more detailed testimony because he claimed loss of memory. The defendant was sentenced to 25 years and was subject to deportation after serving his sentence. The defendant’s sentence was affirmed on appeal and the State’s Supreme Court denied both certification and a motion for reconsideration. The defendant than filed a Post-Conviction Relief petition claiming ineffective assistance at his plea hearing, no knowledge of the deportation consequences of the plea, and ineffective post-conviction relief counsel.

The defendant’s reasoning for ineffective assistance from his attorney at the plea hearing was that his attorney allowed him to enter a plea where there was no factual basis for the crime. However, despite the defendant’s memory loss there was a factual basis. Firstly he admitted to killing his wife, and to setting fire him a home knew had people inside. Secondly, due to his claim of memory loss it was permitted that the autopsy and statements to police be entered as evidence in order to fill in the blanks. The autopsy revealed that his wife died of strangulation and blunt force beating. Furthermore the police report which contained statements made by the defendant’s son revealed that his son had found his mother beaten to death in her bed, left to get his older brother, and then returned to find his mother on fire. The combination of the defendant’s testimony, the son’s statements, and the autopsy provide a clear and credible factual basis for the defendant’s charges and his plea bargain. As for the issue of whether the defendant understood the deportation consequences of his sentence, it was asked by the judge, provided on the plea bargain that he signed and translated into Spanish.

In order to be entitled to an evidentiary hearing on a PCR petition, based on ineffective assistance from an attorney, there is a two-part test named after a U.S. Supreme Court case and a New Jersey Supreme court case known as the Strickland-Fritz test. In order to pass the test, the defendant must demonstrate that:

1) his attorney’s performance was so deficient that it detracted from the Sixth Amendment guarantee to a fair trial in the U.S. Constitution and

2) that “but for” the defective representation by the attorney there is a “reasonable probability” that there would have been a different result.

Given the circumstances and evidence this threshold was not met.

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