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Sotomayor slams refusal to take up ineffective counsel case

Conflict of interest concerns arose after two of four defendants in a racketeering case accepted a plea deal in exchange for testimony against the others, who were represented by the same attorney.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Spurring a dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to hear an appeal from a Florida man who claims his criminal case was affected by a conflict of interest that arose from using the same attorney as his co-defendants who took plea deals.

James Holcombe and his father Dale Holcombe were sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges for racketeering and conspiracy to engage in a pattern of racketeering. An eight-month investigation found that their business, Cash for Cards, purchased gift cards that were fraudulently obtained and then sold them to online vendors. Two of their employers, William Hooper and Matt Angell, were also charged on multiple counts of dealing in stolen property.

Holcombe argued in his petition to the Supreme Court that although there was no initial conflict of interest when he and his three co-defendants agreed to be represented by the same attorney, problems arose later when Hooper and Angell pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against him and his father.

The nation's highest court decided not to review the case Monday, leading to a dissenting opinion from Sotomayor. The Barack Obama appointee wrote it is the court’s responsibility “to assure that criminal defendants are not deprived of their right to the effective assistance of counsel by joint representation of conflicting interests.”

A trial court judge questioned each defendant privately about the potential conflict of interest in having the same attorney and law firm represent all of them during a pretrial hearing in January 2018.

The attorney, Aaron Delgado, told the judge that he met with each man individually and they all signed a waiver of conflict that explained how it might be better for each of them to have independent counsel. Delgado also said each of them met with an independent attorney and then affirmed to him after that meeting they wished for him to continue representing them and did not believe there was a conflict.

According to the Florida attorney general's brief opposing Holcombe's petition to the Supreme Court, Delgado said

According to Ashley Moody, Attorney General of Florida’s brief in response to Holcombre’s petition, Delgado also said "the state has made some offers about resolving the cases, and I’ve explained to them that, you know, as long as they testify truthfully that shouldn’t be a problem. It would be if one wants to throw the other under the bus or vice versa.”

During a subsequent pretrial hearing in May 2018, the trial court discussed with the defendants the possibility of resolving the case pursuant to an open plea.

Even though none of them had a previous criminal record, the state was not willing to reduce the Holcombes' first-degree felony charges. While the father and son went to trial, Hooper and Angell accepted their plea deals, which required them to testify against the Holcombes.

Although they were each made aware of a potential conflict occurring, Holcombe argued on appeal that the trial court should have intervened and made a proper inquiry beforehand.

Sotomayor agreed.

“When a trial court is made aware of an actual conflict before trial and fails to inquire into the nature and scope of the conflict, reversal of a defendant’s conviction is automatic,” she wrote in her dissent to the court's denial of a writ of certiorari.

She added, “The codefendants’ pleas put defense counsel in an impossible dilemma:  If the attorney successfully undermined the codefendants’ testimony, he would aid Holcombe’s defense, but potentially jeopardize the codefendants’ ability to obtain lenient sentences. Holding back against the codefendants, on the other hand, would improve their chances at sentencing,  but  allow the State’s key witnesses to provide damning evidence against Holcombe.”

The Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed Holcombes' convictions and sentences in September 2020 and James' motion for rehearing was denied the following month. The Florida Supreme Court declined to hear the case in February 2021.

Sotomayor concluded the Florida courts “failed to protect that core constitutional guarantee” of effective assistance of counsel.

“For these reasons, I would summarily reverse the judgment of the Florida Court of Appeal,” she wrote.

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