CaseCast™ – "What you need to know"
Brief Fact Summary. The defendant and two others went to the victim’s apartment looking for drugs. An argument broke out and the defendant ended up inflicting a fatal stab wound to the victim. Defendant expressed to his attorney that he had to concoct a story the victim having a weapon in order to win on a theory of self-defense. Defendant’s attorney informed him that if he perjured himself on the stand, the attorney would have to inform the court of the deception. Defendant was found guilty of second degree murder. He petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit granted the writ.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. An attorney is precluded from taking steps or in any way assisting the client in presenting false evidence or otherwise violating the law and should admonish the client about his duty to inform the court if the defendant perjures himself on the stand.
Issue. Does an attorney’s admonition to his client that he will inform the court about what he sees as a client’s plan to commit perjury violate a defendant’s right to effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment?
Held. No. The judgment of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed and habeas corpus denied.
In Strickland, we held that to obtain relief under the Sixth Amendment, the moving party must establish both serious attorney error and prejudice.
Also recognized in Strickland were a counsel’s duty of loyalty and the duty to advocate on behalf of the client. These duties, however, are limited to legitimate, lawful conduct compatible with a desire to search for the truth.
Counsel is precluded from taking steps or in any way assisting the client in presenting false evidence.
These principles are codified in the Model Code of Professional Responsibility and the Model Rules of Professional conduct. An attorney’s first duty when faced with prospective perjury is to dissuade the client from the unlawful course of conduct.
In light of the accepted norms of professional conduct, Whiteside’s attorney did not fail to adhere to reasonable professional standards that would make out a deprivation of the Sixth Amendment. Whiteside did testify and he was only “restricted” or “restrained” from doing so falsely.
An attorney's ethical duty to advance the interests of his client is limited by an equally solemn duty to comply with the law and standards of professional conduct.View Full Point of Law
Whether an attorney’s response to what he sees as a client’s plan to commit perjury violates the Sixth Amendment may depend on the following factors: (1) how certain the attorney is that the proposed testimony is false; (2) the state of the proceedings at which the attorney discovers the plan; and (3) the ways in which the attorney may be able to dissuade the client. The Court’s adoption of a set of standards of professional responsibility for attorneys in state criminal proceedings is troubling. The Court’s responsibility only extends to ensuring that a state’s restrictions don’t infringe on a defendant’s federal constitutional rights.
Justice John Paul Stevens concurring: In this case, it is clear that Whiteside intended to perjure himself. His lawyer knew of his intentions and had a duty to both the court and his client to take extreme measures to prevent the perjury from taking place.
Discussion. Attorneys who adopt the role of the judge or jury to determine the facts pose a danger of depriving their clients of the zealous and loyal advocacy required under the Sixth Amendment. This lawyer’s actions were a proper way to provide his client with effective representation without having to confront the more difficult questions of what a lawyer should do after his client has given testimony that the lawyer does not the believe.