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Monday, April 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

No Case for Last-Minute Change of Public Defense

(CN) - A man on death row for murdering a woman cannot change lawyers for his habeas proceedings, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, saying the "interests of justice" standard should apply in similar cases of indigent defendants.

Kenneth Clair is on death row for the 1984 murder of Linda Rogers. The woman was murdered in a Santa Ana, Calif., home the night police released Clair from custody after arresting him a week earlier for burglarizing that very home.

Rogers' body was found naked from the waist down. She had been beaten, stabbed and strangled, and jewelry had been taken from the house.

Clair, who had been squatting in a neighboring house at the time of the murder, was later recorded making incriminatory statements to his then girlfriend, Pauline Flores.

"For example, when Flores told Clair that she had seen blood on him, he replied 'Ain't on me no more' and 'They can't prove nothing,'" according to the Supreme Court. "And in response to her continued probing, Clair explained '[W]hat you fail to realize, how .. they gonna prove I was there ... ? There ain't no ... fingerprints, ain't no ... body seen me go in there and leave out there.'"

After a jury convicted Clair, he and court-appointed counsel initiated habeas proceedings in 1994. But Clair requested to change attorneys in March 2005, just after the court had concluded briefing on the petition. That summer, the court denied the request and denied the habeas petition.

Though the 9th Circuit let Clair substitute attorneys for his appeal, the District Court would not vacate the denial of his habeas petition. The 9th Circuit then vacated the trial court's denial of both Clair's request for new counsel and his habeas petition

The Supreme Court reversed Monday, finding that the court applied the right standard but made the wrong determination.

California had argued that indigent defendants seeking substitution of representation should demonstrate an "actual or constructive denial" of counsel. The justices said Clair's argument for the "interests of justice" standard was more persuasive.

But the justices disagreed that the District Court abused its discretion in denying Clair's request for new counsel under that standard.

Citing the court's 10-year history with the case, a previous attempt to change counsel that Clair had dropped, and the timing of the motion, the justices said that District Court got it right.

"The court received Clair's second letter while putting the finishing touches on its denial of his habeas petition," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the unanimous court. "(That lengthy decision issued just two weeks later.) After many years of litigation, an evidentiary hearing, and substantial post­hearing briefing, the court had instructed the parties that it would accept no further submissions. The case was all over but the deciding; counsel, whether old or new, could do nothing more in the trial court proceedings. At that point and in that forum, Clair's conflict with his lawyers no longer mattered."

"The District Court could properly have rejected that motion, consistent with its order pre­cluding further submissions (effectively remitting Clair to state court to pursue the matter)," she added (parentheses in original). "And if that is so, the court also acted within its discretion in denying Clair's request to substitute counsel, even without the usually appropriate inquiry. The court was not required to appoint a new lawyer just so Clair could file a futile motion. We accord­ingly find that the Court of Appeals erred in overturning the District Court's decision."

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