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Sunday, June 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Murder Conviction After Bad Legal Advice Sticks

WASHINGTON (CN) - Habeas relief is not available to a transgender woman convicted of murdering her uncle, the unanimous U.S Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

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

Though officers 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. 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.

That lawyer, Frederick Toca, then withdrew himself, and the court appointed William Cataldo to represent Titlow.

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.

Titlow would have received a sentence of 7 to 15 years under the manslaughter plea. A jury subsequently convicted her of second-degree murder, and she was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison. She is currently incarcerated at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich. Billie was acquitted at her own trial.

After the 6th Circuit granted Titlow habeas relief in May 2012, the Supreme Court took up the case in February.

It reversed Tuesday, despite noting that Toca's actions were "troubling," and that his "conduct in this litigation was far from exemplary."

"He may well have violated the rules of professional conduct by accepting respondent's publication rights as partial payment for his services, and he waited weeks before consulting respondent's first lawyer about the case," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the mostly unanimous court. "But the Sixth Amendment does not guarantee the right to perfect counsel; it promises only the right to effective assistance, and we have held that a lawyer's violation of ethical norms does not make the lawyer per se ineffective."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg alone did not join the decision, but she filed an opinion concurring in judgment.

Though Toca's actions deserve scrutiny, Ginsburg said "one thing is crystal clear."

"The prosecu­tor's agreement to the plea bargain hinged entirely on Titlow's willingness to testify at her aunt's trial," she continued. "Once Titlow reneged on that half of the deal, the bargain failed. Absent an extant bargain, there was nothing to renew. In short, the prosecutor could not be ordered to 'renew' a plea proposal never offered in the first place. With the plea offer no longer alive, Titlow was convicted after a trial free from reversible error."

Alito had opened the majority opinion by noting that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) does "not permit federal judges to so casually second-guess the decisions of their state-court colleagues or defense attorneys."

That position is supported by the 1984 decision Strickland v. Washington, according to the ruling.

"Accepting as true the Michigan Court of Appeals' factual determination that respondent proclaimed innocence to Toca, the Sixth Circuit's Strickland analysis cannot be sustained," Alito wrote. "Although a defendant's proclamation of innocence does not relieve counsel of his normal responsibilities under Strickland, it may affect the advice counsel gives. The Michigan Court of Appeals' conclusion that Toca's advice satisfied Strickland fell within the bounds of reasonableness under AEDPA, given that respondent was claiming innocence and only days away from offering self-incriminating testimony in open court pursuant to a plea agreement involving an above-guidelines sentence."

There is also insufficient evidence to conclude that Toca was ineffective, the ruling states.

"Toca was justified in relying on this admission to conclude that respondent understood the strength of the prosecution's case and nevertheless wished to withdraw the plea," Alito wrote. "With respondent having knowingly entered the guilty plea, we think any confusion about the strength of the state's evidence upon withdrawing the plea less than a month later highly unlikely."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined in the majority ruling but wrote a concurring opinion to explain the court's "limited scope, particularly with respect to two statements that it makes about the adequacy of Toca's performance."

"Had respondent made a better factual record - had she actually shown, for example, that Toca failed to educate himself about the case before recom­mending that she withdraw her plea - then she could well have prevailed," Sotomayor wrote.

"Because (and only because) respondent failed to present enough evidence to overcome the twin presumptions of AEDPA and Strickland, I join fully in the opinion of the court." (Parentheses in original.)

Titlow had separately sued the doctors with the Michigan Department of Corrections over alleged deliberate indifference to her medical needs.

She claimed 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 refused to let her have a surgical consultation.

In December 2012, the 6th Circuit found that two of the doctors did not have qualified immunity from Titlow's claims.

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