Burt v. Titlow
571 U.S. ___ (2013)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary
Titlow and Rogers were charged with the murder of Rogers’s husband. After explaining to Titlow that the evidence could support a first-degree murder conviction, Titlow’s attorney negotiated a manslaughter plea in exchange for testimony against Rogers. Three days before trial, Titlow retained a new attorney, Toca, who demanded a lower sentence in exchange for the plea and testimony. The prosecutor rejected the proposal. Titlow withdrew the plea. Rogers was acquitted. Titlow was convicted of second-degree murder. On direct appeal, Titlow argued that Toca provided ineffective assistance by advising plea withdrawal without determining the strength of the evidence. The Michigan Court of Appeals concluded that Toca’s actions were reasonable, given his client’s claims of innocence. The federal district court denied habeas relief. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the factual predicate for the state court’s decision, that the plea withdrawal was based on Titlow’s assertion of innocence, unreasonable, given Toca’s explanation at the withdrawal hearing that the plea offer was higher than the Michigan guidelines sentencing range. The Supreme Court reversed, applying the “doubly deferential” standard of review set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. 2254(d)(2). The record supports a factual finding that Toca advised withdrawal of the guilty plea only after Titlow’s proclamation of innocence. Titlow passed a polygraph test, discussed the case with a jailer who advised against pleading guilty if Titlow was innocent, and hired Toca days before the trial at which Titlow was to self-incriminate. The facts strongly suggest that Titlow had second thoughts about confessing and proclaimed her innocence. The Sixth Circuit’s conclusion that Toca was ineffective because the record contained no evidence that he gave constitutionally adequate advice is contrary to the principle that counsel should be “strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance.” That Toca failed to retrieve the file from former counsel before withdrawing the plea cannot overcome that presumption. Titlow admitted in open court that former counsel had explained that the evidence would support a first-degree murder conviction. Toca justifiably relied on this to conclude that Titlow understood the strength of the prosecution’s case.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

BURT, WARDEN v. TITLOW

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit

No. 12–414. Argued October 8, 2013—Decided November 5, 2013

Respondent Titlow and Billie Rogers were arrested for the murder of Billie’s husband. After explaining to respondent that the State’s evidence could support a conviction for first-degree murder, respondent’s attorney negotiated a manslaughter plea in exchange for an agreement to testify against Billie. Three days before Billie’s trial, respondent retained a new attorney, Frederick Toca, who demanded an even lower sentence in exchange for the guilty plea and testimony. The prosecutor rejected the proposal, and respondent withdrew the original plea. Without that testimony, Billie was acquitted. Respondent was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder. On direct appeal, respondent argued that Toca provided ineffective assistance by advising withdrawal of the plea without taking time to learn the strength of the State’s evidence. The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the claim, concluding that Toca’s actions were reasonable in light of his client’s protestations of innocence. On federal habeas review, the District Court applied the deferential standard of review set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), concluded that the Michigan Court of Appeals’ ruling was reasonable on the law and facts, and denied relief. The Sixth Circuit reversed. It found the factual predicate for the state court’s decision—that the plea withdrawal was based on respondent’s assertion of innocence—an unreasonable interpretation of the factual record, given Toca’s explanation at the withdrawal hearing that the decision to withdraw was made because the State’s original plea offer was higher than the sentencing range provided by the Michigan guidelines. It also found no evidence in the record that Toca adequately advised respondent of the consequences of withdrawal.

Held: The Sixth Circuit failed to apply the “doubly deferential” standard of review recognized by the Court’s case law when it refused to credit the state court’s reasonable factual finding and assumed that counsel was ineffective where the record was silent. Pp. 4–11.

     (a) AEDPA recognizes the federalism principle that state courts are adequate forums for the vindication of federal statutory and constitutional rights. It erects a formidable barrier to federal habeas relief for prisoners whose claims have been adjudicated in state court, requiring them to “show that the state court’s ruling . . . was so lacking in justification that there was an error . . . beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U. S. ___, ___. Pp. 4–6.

     (b) Here, the record readily supports the Michigan Court of Appeals’ factual finding that Toca advised withdrawal of the guilty plea only after respondent’s proclamation of innocence. The facts that respondent passed a polygraph test denying being in the room when Billie’s husband was killed, discussed the case with a jailer who advised against pleading guilty if respondent was indeed innocent, and hired Toca just three days before Billie’s trial at which respondent had agreed to self-incriminate, strongly suggest that respondent had second thoughts about confessing in open court and proclaimed innocence to Toca. The only evidence cited by the Sixth Circuit for its contrary conclusion was that Toca’s sole explanation at the withdrawal hearing focused on the fact that the State’s plea offer was substantially higher than that provided by the Michigan guidelines. The Michigan Court of Appeals was well aware of Toca’s representations to the trial court and correctly found nothing inconsistent about a defendant’s asserting innocence on the one hand and refusing to plead guilty to manslaughter accompanied by higher-than-normal punishment on the other. 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. More troubling is that court’s conclusion that Toca was ineffective because the record contained no evidence that he gave constitutionally adequate advice on whether to withdraw the plea. The Sixth Circuit turned on its head the principle that counsel should be “strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment,” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668 , with the burden to show otherwise resting squarely on the defendant, id., at 687. The single fact that Toca failed to retrieve respondent’s file from former counsel before withdrawing the guilty plea cannot overcome Strickland’s strong presumption of effectiveness. In any event, respondent admitted in open court that former counsel had explained the State’s evidence and that it would support a first-degree murder conviction. Toca was justified in relying on this admission to conclude that respondent understood the strength of the prosecution’s case. Toca’s conduct in this litigation was far from exemplary, but a lawyer’s ethical violations do not make the lawyer per se ineffective, and Toca’s questionable conduct was irrelevant to the narrow issue before the Sixth Circuit. Pp. 6–11.

680 F. 3d 577, reversed.

     Alito, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Sotomayor, J,. filed a concurring opinion. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.