Back in 2002, I was accused of sexual assault by a 15 year old girl. The US District Court of Connecticut assigned me a federal defender, Thomas Belsky. Belsky failed his professional responsibilities at almost every turn and thereby coerced me into entering a guilty plea. His criminal behavior put me in prison for just under nine years. However, this essay is not about him but about the courts, which allowed him to get away with his villainy.
When a defense lawyer fails to do his job, his victim may file a habeas corpus petition. (Actually, I filed something slightly different. However, I’m writing this essay for legal laymen, so I’m going to gloss over legal technicalities and skip over things that didn’t apply to my case.) If the court grants the petition, it has to, as much as possible, reset the criminal proceedings to just before where the lawyer failed. For example, if the lawyer advises his client to plead guilty where a competent lawyer might have advised him to go to trial, the guilty plea is set aside. The defendant gets to decide anew, hopefully with a competent lawyer’s help, whether to plead guilty or go to trial.
My habeas petition was really large because I detailed all the things that Belsky did wrong. In this essay, I will detail just one of the claims that required setting aside my guilty plea: Belsky did not investigate my case and thereby made my plea involuntary. To win on this claim, I had to allege in my petition and later prove in a hearing:
- Belsky did not investigate my case.
- No competent lawyer would have failed to investigate my case.
- There was a reasonable probability that, had a competent lawyer investigated my case, he would have advised me that I had a good chance at trial.
- Had I been so advised, I would have gone to trial.
Here’s what the district court had to say about this claim. The quotes are all from the court’s ruling.
Next, Mr. Wells contends that counsel was ineffective in advising him to plead guilty without conducting an investigation, and thus claims that his guilty plea was not knowing and intelligent. [P. 15 of the district court’s ruling and I’ve omitted a footnote]
I had alleged that Belsky didn’t investigate, and the government didn’t deny my allegation. So, the court accepted that Belsky did no investigation and acknowledged that this is potentially grounds for setting aside my guilty plea.
According to Mr. Wells, if counsel had conducted an investigation of the victim, he might have obtained evidence showing that she lied, was mentally disturbed, manipulative, and had told three different stories about their encounter, [P. 15]
This is the court’s summary of what I alleged Belsky should have investigated. It’s rather incomplete, but never mind that.
and this information should have caused counsel to advise Mr. Wells that he had a ‘good chance’ at trial.
If counsel had given him such advice, Mr. Wells says he would have insisted on going to trial. [P. 15-16]
With this, the court completed its recognition that I had alleged sufficient facts to require vacating my guilty plea.
Putting aside the fact that this argument is, in essence, not about the scope of counsel’s investigation, but rather “a complaint about strategy cast in investigatory terms,” see Greiner v. Wells, 417 F.3d 305, 322 (2d Cir. 2005) (where petitioner’s “failure-to investigate” and “failure-to-introduce evidence” arguments are identical, they implicate trial strategy), and even assuming, arguendo, that counsel acted unreasonably by not undertaking an investigation, [P. 16 NB: The Wells case the court cites has nothing to do with me; the name is a coincidence]
Once the legal babble is stripped away, what the court said is that Belsky’s decision to do no investigation was one that a competent lawyer might have made. However, that simply is not the law. Barring extraordinary circumstances (none of which were even suggested in my case), a lawyer must investigate the case against his client.
Mr. Wells has failed to demonstrate that the investigation he describes would have uncovered sufficient exculpatory or favorable evidence that would have caused competent counsel to recommend against pleading guilty to kidnapping and go to trial on the three-count indictment. [P. 16 and the ruling goes on for three more pages detailing what I had failed to demonstrate]
To explain what’s wrong with this, I need to explain a little habeas arcana. To win on my claim, I had to allege and prove four things. Suppose that I had only alleged three of them. A hearing would have been pointless, since proving my three allegations would not have justified granting the petition. In a situation like that, a court is allowed to dispense with the hearing and deny the petition. To do this, the court must prove that the petitioner can’t win even if he proves all his allegations at a hearing.
The court didn’t give me a hearing, which means that it was obligated to do the proving. That is, the court was obligated to prove that no matter what an investigation turned up, competent counsel would have told me to plead guilty. I wasn’t obligated to prove anything. Yet, here the court is denying my petition because I hadn’t proven an allegation.
Any judge who deals with criminal cases knows that a defendant’s lawyer must investigate the case against his client. Any judge who deals with habeas corpus cases knows that he cannot dismiss a petition for failure to prove an allegation unless the petitioner has been given a hearing at which he has an opportunity to prove that allegation. This judge knew that Belsky had done wrong. She knew that she had not given me an opportunity to prove my case (she denied my request for a hearing later in that very same ruling).
A habeas petitioner doesn’t have the right to appeal the denial of his petition. He has to get a “certificate of appealability”. This judge refused to give me one, so I asked the appeals court for one. Getting a certificate of appealability should have been easy; all I had to show was that the ruling was debatable. It was more than debatable; it was clearly wrong.
The appeals court refused to give me the certificate of appealability, without giving a reason. The Supreme Court could not be bothered to hear my case.
This is intended to be an essay, not a book. I therefore haven’t discussed the numerous other claims in my habeas petition. However, the district court rejected them all, largely with equally spurious verbiage. The appeals court refused a certificate of appealability on all issues, giving no reason, and the Supreme Court wasn’t interested in any of them. Nor have I detailed how the Supreme Court itself violated the law when I asked it for a certificate of appealability (on another issue). If one puts all this together, what it adds up to is a judicial system made up of judges who only obey the law when it suits them. When it doesn’t, they pervert the law or hide behind procedures that allow them to ignore the law.