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Connecticut Supreme Court Announces Defense Counsel Has Duty to ‘Promptly’ Notify Defendant of Plea Offer, Failure to Notify Before Testifying Constitutes IAC

by Matt Clarke

The Supreme Court of Connecticut held that a criminal defense attorney was ineffective for waiting to convey to his client a plea-bargain offer until after it had been withdrawn two and a half days later.

Jennifer Helmedach was charged with felony murder and related crimes. She faced a mandatory-minimum sentence of 25 years for the felony murder. She agreed to a 15-to-20-year pretrial plea offer only to be told it had been withdrawn due to opposition from the victim’s family. She rejected two in-trial plea bargain offers, the most favorable of which was a prison sentence of 14 years. During the trial, the prosecution’s star witness recanted an earlier statement linking Helmedach to the crime. This prompted the prosecutor to make a 10-year plea offer after he rested the State’s case.

Richard Reeve, Helmedach’s attorney, thought it was “a great offer” but was concerned because his client was already “flustered” about her testimony. He asked the prosecutor if he could convey the offer after she testified. The prosecutor said, “Okay.”

Reeve discussed the offer with his law partner who advised him to inform his client about it immediately. Nevertheless, Reeve waited to tell Helmedach about the offer until after she had finished testifying two and a half days later. She wanted to accept the offer, but when Reeve told the prosecutor about her decision, he was told that the offer had been withdrawn.

Helmedach was convicted on all charges and sentenced to 35 years in prison. She later filed a state habeas action alleging she had received ineffective assistance of counsel. The habeas court agreed that Reeve’s failure to relay the favorable offer in a timely manner before it was withdrawn rendered his assistance ineffective, and she was prejudiced because she received a more severe sentence.

The State appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed. The State then sought and received certification to appeal to the state Supreme Court. Assigned counsel, Conrad Ost Seifert, represented Helmedach on appeal before the Court.

The Connecticut Supreme Court noted that the right to effective assistance of counsel “applies to all ‘critical stages’ of a criminal prosecution.” The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the right applies specifically to plea negotiations. Missouri v. Frye, 566 U.S. 134 (2012). In fact, as the Frye Court observed, the right to effective assistance of counsel is especially important for plea negotiations in light of the fact “guilty pleas account for about ninety-four percent of all convictions in state prosecutions.”

In Frye, the U.S. Supreme Court instructed that defense counsel has a duty to present any plea offer from the prosecution to the defendant. Defense counsel in Frye failed to inform the defendant of two plea offers, which expired before the defendant was aware of them. The Court concluded that “defense counsel did not render the effective assistance the [c]onstitution requires.”

The Connecticut Supreme Court explained that “Frye specifically addressed only whether defense counsel must relay offers received, not when they must be relayed.” However, in seeking guidance from various professional codes of conduct from the American Bar Association and state bars, “Frye strongly suggests that counsel must relay offers to plea bargains promptly,” according to the Connecticut Supreme Court. Similarly, after examining Connecticut’s Rules of Professional Conduct in which “the duty of prompt communication” permeates, the Court concluded that defense counsel has a duty “to promptly convey an offer to the defendant.”

However, what constitutes prompt notification “does not depend on any rigid time frame, but, instead depends on what is reasonable in the context and according to the circumstances of the case,” the Court stated.

Further refinement of the term ‘prompt’ is not required to decide the current case, according to the Court. It concluded that defense counsel was required to advise Helmedach of the State’s fourth plea offer before she began to testify because a defendant has the right to decide whether or not to testify. Counsel’s failure to notify her of the plea offer precluded her from exercising “her right to knowingly decide, on the basis of all material information available, whether to testify.” Therefore, the Court concluded that defense counsel’s “performance fell below the minimum required for effective assistance under the circumstances.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the habeas court and appellate court’s judgment. See: Helmedach v. Commissioner of Correction, 189 A.3d 1173 (Conn. 2018). 

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