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Cuyler v. Sullivan

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Sullivan (Defendant) was convicted of murder and then was granted habeas corpus by the court when it found the possibility of conflict in his representation

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    Where a defendant does not raise an objection to multiple representation at trial, the mere potential of a conflict of interest in representation is not enough to invalidate a conviction.

    Facts.

    Sullivan (Defendant), as well as two accomplices, was accused of murder.  Defendant was tried separately and his trial was first.  Two attorneys, who also represented the accomplices, represented him.  His attorneys rested without presenting evidence.  Defendant was convicted.  He appealed, arguing that because of his representation, a conflict of interest existed.  The conviction was affirmed.  He petitioned for habeas corpus.  One attorney testified at a hearing that the decision not to present a case was because of a weak state case.  The other attorney testified that he did not wish to reveal the testimony of certain witnesses, in view of the upcoming trial of the accomplices.  The district court denied habeas corpus, but the court of appeals reversed, holding that since a possibility of conflict existed, Defendant had been denied effective counsel.  The Supreme Court granted review.

    Issue.

    Where a defendant does not raise an objection to multiple representation at trial, is the mere potential of a conflict of interest in representation enough to invalidate a conviction?

     

    Held.

    (Powell, J.)  No.  Where a defendant does not raise an objection to multiple representation at trial, the mere potential of a conflict of interest in representation is not enough to invalidate a conviction.  The potential for a conflict of interest exists in every situation involving multiple representation, so to hold that the mere potential of a conflict is enough to invalidate a conviction would end multiple representation.  However, in many cases multiple representation actually helps the defendant’s position.  With this in mind, this Court believes that only an actual conflict, as opposed to a potential conflict, should invalidate a conviction.  Prejudice is presumed when a conflict exists, but should not be when one is only possible.  Reversed and remanded.

    Discussion.

    Sullivan (Defendant) made no objection to multiple representation in the original trial.  In his habeas corpus petition, Defendant argued that a court should undertake its own investigation to determine the potential for conflicts.  In this regard, Justices Brennan and Marshall took exception to the Court’s ruling.


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