This is a follow up to my last post, where I discussed an opinion issued by the United States Supreme Court, Missouri v. Frye, No. 10-444, wherein the Court held that a criminal defense lawyer’s failure to communicate a plea offer may provide a basis for federal habeas relief. In Lafler v. Cooper, No. 10-209, issued the same day as Frye, the Court addressed the issue of what remedies may be available to such a federal habeas petitioner.
Lafler went to trial rather than accept a plea deal. Because Lafler received a more severe sentence at trial, one 3½ times more severe than he likely would have received by pleading guilty, all the parties conceded that Lafler’s decision to reject the plea offer was the result of ineffective assistance during the plea negotiation process. As a result, the specific issue addressed by the Court was “how to apply Strickland’s prejudice test where ineffective assistance results in a rejection of the plea offer and the defendant is convicted at the ensuing trial.” Lafler, slip op. at pgs. 4-7.
Although the District Court ordered specific performance of the original plea agreement as a remedy, the Court held that the correct remedy under the circumstances is to order the State of Michigan to reoffer the plea agreement. If Lafler accepts the offer, the state trial court would then be free to exercise its discretion under the relevant State law to determine whether to vacate the convictions and resentence Lafler pursuant to the plea agreement, to vacate only some of the convictions and resentence Lafler accordingly, or to leave the convictions and sentence from trial undisturbed. As noted by the Court, its decision “leaves open to the trial court how best to exercise that discretion in all the circumstances of the case.” Lafler, slip op. at pg. 16.
In my view, this decision is yet another step by the Court to becoming a kinder, more gentler Court for federal habeas petitioners. For one of my previous posts on the Court’s change, click here. To read more about the oral arguments in the companion cases of Frye and Lafler, click here.