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Friday, May 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Bad Advice on Plea Deal Will Go to High Court

WASHINGTON (CN) - A transgender woman convicted of murdering her uncle must defend her claims for habeas relief before the U.S Supreme Court, the justices said Monday.

While Vonlee Titlow would have received a sentence of 7 to 15 years under a plea agreement that her first attorney had negotiated, Titlow's second attorney advised her to withdraw the manslaughter plea and go to trial. A jury subsequently convicted her of second-degree murder and she was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison.

Titlow had been living with her uncle Donald Rogers and his wife, Billie Rogers, in Troy, Mich., at the time of his death. She and Billie initially told police that they had arrived home to find Donald, a wealthy alcoholic, dead on the kitchen floor, with a drink in hand, one night in August 2000.

Officers who responded to the scene, however, found the women's behavior inconsistent. A medical examiner never performed an autopsy on Donald and listed the cause of death as a heart attack, and the body was quickly cremated.

Some time later, photographs of corpse led investigators to amend the death certificate to list asphyxia by smothering as the cause of death. Apparently small scrapes around Donald's nose matched impressions made by a decorative pillow.

Titlow's boyfriend then told police how Titlow had previously told him that Billie offered her $25,000 to kill Donald. After Donald was found dead, Titlow allegedly told the boyfriend she and Billie had discovered the man passed out, and then tried to pour vodka down his throat while holding his nose shut.

Titlow allegedly stopped the vodka plan and left the room, at which point Billie apparently smothered Donald with the pillow.

The boyfriend had Titlow recount these details sometime later while wearing a wire.

As the sole beneficiary of Donald's estate, Billie bought new cars for herself and Titlow, wrote Titlow a check for $70,260 and gave Titlow gambling money that Billie deducted from a ledger with $100,000 written on it.

Authorities charged both women with first-degree murder and planned to try them separately. Though Titlow's lawyer negotiated a more lenient manslaughter plea deal, a sheriff's deputy apparently advised Titlow to get a new lawyer if she believed she was innocent.

The second lawyer, who represented Titlow in exchange for some jewelry and media rights to the case, withdrew the guilty plea.

A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit, which granted Titlow habeas relief in May 2012, noted that this second lawyer, Frederick Toca, "did not obtain Titlow's file, inspect the government's discovery materials, or speak with [Richard] Lustig (Titlow's former counsel) about the case until January 10, 2002, approximately a month and a half after the plea-withdrawal hearing." (Parentheses in original.)

"This despite the fact that Lustig had made the file available to Toca around the time of the November 29, 2001 hearing, which was when Toca officially substituted himself as Titlow's counsel. All of this information was presented to the Michigan Court of Appeals on Titlow's direct appeal.

"Soon after obtaining the file, Toca moved to withdraw as counsel, citing a breakdown in communications and a lack of funds to proceed with the defense. At a hearing in February 2002, the court questioned Toca's budgetary constraints (which was his stated reason for failing to order the transcripts from Billie's recently concluded trial) and learned about his questionable financial agreement with Titlow," the ruling continues. "The court then appointed William Cataldo as Titlow's trial counsel."

At trial, Michigan argued that Titlow participated in the murder to fund her sex-change operation since she had been born a man but was living as a woman for many years. Titlow took the stand to defend herself, telling jurors that she had abandoned the vodka-suffocation plan only to find Billie suffocating Donald with the pillow. She said accepted Billie's money as a bribe.

The jury convicted her of second-degree murder, while Billie was acquitted at her own trial.

Titlow is currently incarcerated at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich.

The Supreme Court granted the state a writ of certiorari Monday, issuing no comment on the case, as is its custom. It also granted Titlow leave to proceed in forma pauperis.

In addition to her habeas claims, Titlow is fighting the doctors with the Michigan Department of Corrections over alleged deliberate indifference to her medical needs.

She claims that the silicon injections that she received prior to her incarceration have since been causing severe, recurring pain in her breasts, but that prison officials refuse to let her have a surgical consultation.

In December 2012, the 6th Circuit affirmed that qualified immunity does not shield two of the doctors Titlow had sued. This issue will not factor into Titlow's upcoming Supreme Court hearing.

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