Criminal Law Blog

That’s Not What Conflict Means

James Earl Blackmon v. United States (decided September 29, 2016).

Players: Associate Judges Fisher and Blackburne-Rigsby, and Senior Judge Ruiz.  Opinion by Judge Ruiz.  Matthew B. Kaplan for Mr. Blackmon.  Trial judge: Jennifer M. Anderson.

Facts:  After Mr. Blackmon’s first trial for multiple counts of sexual abuse, assault, kidnapping, and burglary, he was convicted of all charges and sentenced to 34 years of incarceration.  Based on a violation of Mr. Blackmon’s Sixth Amendment confrontation right, the Court of Appeals remanded his case for a new trial.

Before his second trial, Mr. Blackmon was offered, and rejected, a plea to all the charges in exchange of a government recommendation of no more than 25 years of incarceration.  Mr. Blackmon’s attorney (a PDS lawyer) counseled Mr. Blackmon, incorrectly, that if he went to trial he could not be sentenced to more than he had been after his first trial.  On the first day of trial, having realized his mistake, Mr. Blackmon’s counsel informed Mr. Blackmon and the Court of the error. 

The trial court then appointed a different lawyer for the sole purpose of advising Mr. Blackmon about his “options at this juncture.”  Mr. Blackmon indicated that he wanted to take the 25-year offer, but at this point the government stated that it would only offer a plea to 34 years.  Mr. Blackmon’s trial counsel argued that the government should be required to extend its original plea offer, but the trial court disagreed, and Mr. Blackmon rejected the 34-year plea.  However, the government agreed to cap its allocution to 34-years, placing Mr. Blackmon in the position he was when he initially rejected the 25-year offer.  The trial court agreed to be bound by the upper limit of 34-years.

Mr. Blackmon was then represented at trial by his original PDS attorney, and was convicted of all charges except the burglary charge.  Twice during trial Mr. Blackmon’s counsel requested a mistrial—first arguing that Mr. Blackmon had lost confidence and wanted a new attorney, and then that Mr. Blackmon disagreed with the counsel’s defense strategy concerning the government’s DNA evidence.  Twice the trial court denied the requests, finding that Mr. Blackmon simply wanted to get back the 25-year plea, which was no longer available. 

Issue:  Did the trial court err in not appointing Mr. Blackmon new trial counsel because his trial counsel had a continuing conflict of interest after giving incorrect legal advice about the initial plea offer?

Holding:  No.  Mr. Blackmon’s trial counsel did not have a conflict of interest once the matter of the plea offer, for which he was appointed new counsel, was resolved.  “A breakdown in communication—even a hostile relationship—between counsel and client is not the same . . . as a conflict of interest that leads counsel to act with less than complete zeal and loyalty to his client.”  Because there was no divergence in interests between Mr. Blackmon and his attorney, he was not entitled to appointment of new trial counsel.  CP

Read full opinion here.