Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics

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Kulbicki shot his girlfriend during the weekend before a scheduled hearing about unpaid child support. At Kulbicki’s 1995 trial, an FBI Agent expert on Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis (CBLA) testified that the composition of elements in the molten lead of a bullet fragment found in Kulbicki’s truck matched the composition in a fragment removed from the victim’s brain; a similarity one would “‘expect’” if “‘examining two pieces of the same bullet,’” and that a bullet taken from Kulbicki’s gun was not an “exac[t]” match to those fragments, but was similar enough that the two bullets likely came from the same package. The jury considered additional physical evidence from Kulbicki’s truck and witness testimony and convicted Kulbicki of first-degree murder. Kulbicki sought post-conviction relief. In 2006 Kulbicki added a claim that his attorneys were ineffective for failing to question the legitimacy of CBLA. By then, the Court of Appeals of Maryland had held that CBLA evidence was not generally accepted by the scientific community and was inadmissible. In that court, Kulbicki abandoned his claim of ineffective assistance with respect to the CBLA evidence, but the court vacated Kulbicki’s conviction on that ground alone. The Supreme Court summarily reversed, stating that the lower court indulged in the “natural tendency to speculate as to whether a different trial strategy might have been more successful.” Given the uncontroversial nature of CBLA at the time of trial, the judgment below would demand that lawyers go “looking for a needle in a haystack,” even when they have “reason to doubt there is any needle there.” View "Maryland v. Kulbicki" on Justia Law

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In 1999, Christeson was convicted of three counts of capital murder and sentenced to death. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed Christeson’s conviction and sentence and denial of his post-conviction motion for relief. Under the one-year limitations period imposed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U. S. C. 244(d)(1), Christeson’s federal habeas petition was due on April 10, 2005. Nine months before that deadline, the court appointed attorneys Horwitz and Butts to represent Christeson, 18 U. S. C. 599(a)(2). The attorneys subsequently acknowledged that they failed to meet with Christeson until six weeks after his petition was due. There is no evidence that they communicated with him at all. They finally filed the petition 117 days late. The district court dismissed; the Eighth Circuit denied a certificate of appealability. Christeson, who has severe cognitive disabilities, relied entirely on his attorneys, and may not have known of the dismissal. About seven years later, the attorneys contacted attorneys Merrigan and Perkovich to discuss Christeson’s case. Christeson’s only hope for merits review was to move under FRCP60(b) to reopen final judgment on the ground that AEDPA’s statute of limitations should have been equitably tolled. Horwitz and Butts would not file that motion, premised on their own malfeasance. In 2014, Merrigan and Perkovich unsuccessfully moved to substitute counsel. The Eighth Circuit dismissed, reasoning that they were not authorized to file on Christeson’s behalf. The Missouri Supreme Court set an October 29, 2014 execution date. The district court denied a second motion as untimely, stating that Horwitz and Butts had not “abandoned” Christeson, and reasoning that allowing the motion would permit “‘abusive’” delays in capital cases. The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court stayed execution and reversed, stating that the denials contravened its 2012 decision, Martel v. Clair, concerning the “interests of justice” standard, and noting the obvious conflict of interest with respect to the original attorneys. View "Christeson v. Roper" on Justia Law

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In 1985, a manager was shot to death during a robbery of his restaurant. In the following months, a second manager was murdered and another survived similar robberies. In each restaurant, the robber fired two .38 caliber bullets; all six bullets were recovered. The survivor, Smotherman, described his assailant and picked Hinton’s picture out of a photographic array. The police arrested Hinton and recovered from his house a .38 caliber revolver belonging to his mother, who shared the house. The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences concluded that the six bullets had all been fired from the Hinton revolver. Hinton was charged with two counts of murder. He was not charged with the Smotherman robbery. The prosecution strategy was to link Hinton to the Smotherman robbery by eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence about the bullets and to persuade the jury that, given the similarity of the crimes, Hinton must have committed the murders. Hinton presented witnesses in support of his alibi that he was at work at the time of the Smotherman robbery. The six bullets and the revolver were the only physical evidence. Hinton’s attorney obtained a grant of $1,000 to hire an expert to challenge that evidence and did not request more funding, nor correct the judge’s mistaken belief that a $1,000 limit applied. Under that mistaken belief, Hinton’s attorney found only one person who was willing to testify: Payne. Hinton’s attorney believed that Payne did not have the necessary expertise. The prosecutor discredited Payne. The jury convicted Hinton; the court imposed a death sentence. In state post-conviction proceedings, Hinton alleged ineffective assistance and produced three highly credible experts, who testified that they could not conclude that any of the bullets had been fired from the Hinton revolver. The state did not submit rebuttal evidence. Following a remand by the state’s highest court, the trial court held that Payne was qualified to testify as a firearms and toolmark expert under the then-applicable standard. The Alabama Supreme Court denied review. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded, holding that Hinton’s attorney rendered ineffective assistance under its “Strickland” test. It was unreasonable to fail to seek additional funds to hire an expert where that failure was based not on any strategic choice but on a mistaken belief that available funding was limited. View "Hinton v. Alabama" on Justia Law

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In 1985, a manager was shot to death during a robbery of his restaurant. In the following months, a second manager was murdered and another survived similar robberies. In each restaurant, the robber fired two .38 caliber bullets; all six bullets were recovered. The survivor, Smotherman, described his assailant and picked Hinton’s picture out of a photographic array. The police arrested Hinton and recovered from his house a .38 caliber revolver belonging to his mother, who shared the house. The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences concluded that the six bullets had all been fired from the Hinton revolver. Hinton was charged with two counts of murder. He was not charged with the Smotherman robbery. The prosecution strategy was to link Hinton to the Smotherman robbery by eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence about the bullets and to persuade the jury that, given the similarity of the crimes, Hinton must have committed the murders. Hinton presented witnesses in support of his alibi that he was at work at the time of the Smotherman robbery. The six bullets and the revolver were the only physical evidence. Hinton’s attorney obtained a grant of $1,000 to hire an expert to challenge that evidence and did not request more funding, nor correct the judge’s mistaken belief that a $1,000 limit applied. Under that mistaken belief, Hinton’s attorney found only one person who was willing to testify: Payne. Hinton’s attorney believed that Payne did not have the necessary expertise. The prosecutor discredited Payne. The jury convicted Hinton; the court imposed a death sentence. In state post-conviction proceedings, Hinton alleged ineffective assistance and produced three highly credible experts, who testified that they could not conclude that any of the bullets had been fired from the Hinton revolver. The state did not submit rebuttal evidence. Following a remand by the state’s highest court, the trial court held that Payne was qualified to testify as a firearms and toolmark expert under the then-applicable standard. The Alabama Supreme Court denied review. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded, holding that Hinton’s attorney rendered ineffective assistance under its “Strickland” test. It was unreasonable to fail to seek additional funds to hire an expert where that failure was based not on any strategic choice but on a mistaken belief that available funding was limited. View "Hinton v. Alabama" on Justia Law

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In an infringement suit, the district court declared Minton’s patent invalid under the “on sale” bar since he had leased his interactive securities trading system to a brokerage more than one year before the patent application, 35 U. S. C. 102(b). Seeking reconsideration, Minton argued for the first time that the lease was part of testing and fell within the “experimental use” exception to the bar. The Federal Circuit affirmed denial of the motion, concluding that the argument was waived. Minton sued for legal malpractice in Texas state court. His former attorneys argued that Minton’s claims would have failed even if the experimental-use argument had been timely raised. The trial court agreed. Minton then claimed that the court lacked jurisdiction under 28 U. S. C. 1338(a), which provides for exclusive federal jurisdiction over any case “arising under any Act of Congress relating to patents.” The Texas Court of Appeals rejected Minton’s argument and determined that Minton failed to establish experimental use. The state’s highest court reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Section 338(a) does not deprive state courts of subject matter jurisdiction over Minton’s malpractice claim. Federal law does not create that claim, so it can arise under federal patent law only if it necessarily raises a stated federal issue, actually disputed and substantial, which may be entertained without disturbing an approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities. Resolution of a federal patent question is “necessary” to Minton’s case and the issue is “actually disputed,” but it does not carry the necessary significance. No matter the resolution of the hypothetical “case within a case,” the result of the prior patent litigation will not change. Nor will allowing state courts to resolve these cases undermine development of a uniform body of patent law. View "Gunn v. Minton" on Justia Law