The problem with over generalizations is – they are in fact over generalizations! Guilty. I may have suggested recently that your likelihood of getting relief on appeal is about the same as coming up with a perpetual motion machine; or a little less than winning that $200 million Power Ball; or swimming from Los Angeles to San Diego – even if you have spent years doing those "Total Immersion" drills. Just not very likely!
Turns out I may have been wrong again. The Idaho Supreme Court has reversed a district judge who summarily dismissed a case in which a criminal defendant claimed that his right to the effective assistance of counsel was denied by both his trial and appellate lawyers.
I also told you (when you called me from Michigan asking for the names of those appellate attorneys) that Dennis Benjamin was simply a Genius Appellate Defender. And he is. Exhibit A offered in support of that proposition: McKay v. Idaho. There, Justice Jones (W, not J) showed us once again that the Supremes will, indeed, go analytically into that dark night and turn a case around when the interests of justice require. The right to the effective assistance of counsel for a criminal defendant lives here. At least it lives long enough to grant a hearing on the question.
If you are a criminal defendant you have the right to expect that lawyer sitting next to you will do more than fog up a mirror thrust under his or her nose to establish he or she is living. If you are a criminal defendant in any Idaho case – state or federal – I want you to stop and go read this case. I mean it. Now. It is a good reminder of just how important an effective advocate can be for you in court.
Here’s the bottom line – the district court that considered McKay’s ineffective assistance of counsel claims granted summary dismissal of the case by which McKay wanted to show his lawyer did not do everything needed to protect his right to due process at trial and on appeal. Specifically, the lawyer failed to object to the jury instructions that arguably lessened the elements required to prove that McKay had committed vehicular manslaughter. McKay had struck a motorcycle from behind while he was (the State argued) drunk. Idaho law requires the State prove that the operation of his vehicle was "a significant cause contributing to the death" of the motorcycle rider. The jury instructions failed to require consideration of the question of whether McKay’s drinking and driving was a significant cause. McKay claimed that the motorcycle’s tail light was out and regardless of driving or drinking he would not have seen the rider, negating causation.
Dismissal of the post-conviction petition without a hearing was an error. This does not mean that McKay’s conviction is vacated, but rather that the district court will have a hearing to determine if the other requirements for an ineffective assistance of counsel claim are present.
Look – we miss stuff in trials. Most criminal defense lawyers work hard and do a good job. But we are human and we do not always get it right. So McKay has Dennis Benjamin to thank for some great work on his appeal of the denial of the petition for post-conviction relief.
And what about your case? Have an ineffective assistance claim? Jump in here and tell us your experience. And go read my post "Three Things Clients Need From Their Lawyers" for information you need from your lawyer. Assistance requires communication and we do not always get it right. Coming soon here – Three Things Lawyers Need from Their Clients.