WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court considered on Tuesday whether to reverse the conviction of an inmate whose attorney failed to have his client’s unconstitutional confession suppressed before advising him to plead no contest to felony murder.
“If we are trying to figure out he might have been totally irrational and would have gone to trial even though he was likely to end up in jail for life as opposed to 25 years, we should then reverse it and give him a trial?” Justice Stephen Breyer asked. “I’m rather disturbed by that.”
Randy Joseph Moore confessed to murder after police promised to be lenient on him and ignored his request for counsel. His attorney failed to file a motion to suppress the confession, and Moore received a 25-year mandatory prison sentence.
The state court denied his appeal, and a federal judge upheld that decision. A 9th Circuit panel reversed, ruling 2-1 that Moore was entitled to withdraw his plea because his attorney’s performance “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.”
Oregon Attorney General John Kroger, arguing for Oregon State Penitentiary Superintendent Jeff Premo, said that while the burden of proof of ineffective counsel typically lies with the defendant, the 9th Circuit ruling shifts the burden onto the government.
Kroger argued that upholding the 9th Circuit ruling would undercut the finality of court decisions by allowing challenges to guilty pleas years after the fact, forcing courts to speculate whether a particular motion, such as a motion to suppress a confession, would have impacted the plea bargaining process.
“But you have to, don’t you?” Justice Stephen Breyer asked. “It can’t be the state always wins and it can’t be the defendant always wins. So what’s the alternative?”
Kroger said the alternative would be to look at the defendant’s pre-trial decision-making process and, in this case, the attorney’s advice to Moore to enter into a plea agreement was “sound advice.”
Moore’s attorney on appeal, Steven Wax, said the government’s case was not as strong as it represented, and without Moore’s confession, Moore may have gotten a lighter sentence.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that even if Moore’s confession was suppressed, he would receive a felony murder conviction if someone could place him in the scene.
“So what made the case so weak that the government was never going without the confession to prove felony murder?” she asked.
Wax said other witnesses’ testimony may not have been admissible, as the government assumed.
But the justices wondered why Moore’s attorney would be eager to get him to trial even if the murder was accidental, because Moore already received the minimum sentence through the plea bargaining process.
“If it was accidental, it’s still felony murder, and he received through the plea bargaining the minimum sentence for that,” Breyer said.
Wax said Moore was making a “reasoned judgment” that the incident should be viewed as an accident and could secure a lighter sentence.
Justice Elena Kagan, former U.S. solicitor general, has recused herself from the case: Premo v. Moore, 09-658.