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Sixth Circuit Grants § 2254 Habeas Relief in Unusual Case of Attorney Failing to Initiate Plea Negotiations

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the decision of a district court that denied habeas relief. In an unusual ruling, the Sixth Circuit found that defense counsel was ineffective for failing to initiate plea negotiations.

In February 2010, Curtis Byrd and his girlfriend Charletta Atkinson planned to rob Richard Joiner at a bank ATM. Byrd suggested the plan and provided the gun. But at the last minute, Byrd, who had no criminal record, had a change of heart and told Atkinson, “I can’t do this. This is not for me, I’m not going to do it.”

Atkinson exited their vehicle armed with the pistol. During the ensuing robbery, Joiner resisted. In a struggle for the weapon, the pistol discharged, and Joiner was shot in the head and died. Atkinson returned to the car, and Byrd drove away. Shortly thereafter, Byrd turned himself in to the police. Byrd and Atkinson were both charged with, inter alia, first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree felony murder. Byrd was charged on a theory of aiding and abetting, which under Michigan law subjected him to the same penalties as the principal - a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Mich. Comp Laws § 767.39. Atkinson negotiated a plea agreement whereby she would plead guilty to second-degree murder and testify against Byrd in exchange for a sentence of 30 to 50 years. But Byrd’s attorney, Marvin Barnett, adamantly refused to inquire about a plea agreement.

Barnett assured Byrd that he would “hit a home run” for Byrd by securing an acquittal on the affirmative defense theory of “abandonment.” Later, when Byrd asked about a plea deal, Barnett told Byrd he was “going home” instead of going to prison. Byrd was found guilty by a jury and was sentenced to prison for life without parole. After his convictions were affirmed on appeal and his postconviction motions were denied, Byrd filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition for writ of habeas corpus in the federal district court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

At an evidentiary hearing, Wayne County Prosecutor David Braxton testified that his office had a demonstrated record of preferring plea deals over trials. He further testified that once a principal has pleaded guilty, prosecutors have more of an incentive to reach agreements with their aiders and abettors. Braxton testified it was rare for a Wayne County judge to reject a plea agreement. When asked why he did not reach an agreement with Byrd, Braxton replied that Barnett never indicated he was interested. Braxton testified that it is the policy of his office to wait until defense counsel requests an offer before entering into plea negotiations. Barnett testified that he did not seek an offer because he believed Byrd was not guilty under the theory of abandonment of the crime. Barnett was completely wrong on the law regarding abandonment.

The district court denied the habeas on the ground that Byrd failed to prove be would have accepted a plea offer had one been made. Byrd appealed.

The Sixth Circuit observed the usual standard of deficient performance and prejudice applied to this claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The defendant must show his attorney made professional errors that fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and he must show that, absent counsel’s errors, there is a reasonable probability the outcome of the proceedings would have been different. Id. This standard applies to counsel’s conduct despite the fact there is no constitutional right to a plea agreement. Laffler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156 (2012).

The Court had no trouble finding that Barnett’s performance was deficient due to his woeful ignorance of the affirmative defense of abandonment. In a case with nearly identical facts, the Michigan Court of Appeals had ruled the defendant’s abandonment defense failed in spite of the fact that the defendant changed his mind about the robbery, but he had still provided a gun to the principal. This act, according to the Michigan court, showed that the defendant intended to aid in the commission of the crime, and a jury could reasonably find him guilty of felony murder. People v. Atkins, 675 N.W.2d 863 (Mich. 2003). In the instant case, Barnett’s ignorance caused him to overestimate the strength of the abandonment defense, so he did not seek a plea deal. However, to establish prejudice, Byrd also had to show that, absent counsel’s errors, an offer would have been made; he would have accepted the offer; and the judge would have accepted the agreement. Laffler.

The prosecutor’s testimony and track record for preferring plea deals and the rarity of judges’ rejection of those deals coupled with Byrd asking Barnett about a deal convinced the Court that Byrd met the required showing. The Court concluded that Barnett was ineffective for failing to initiate plea negotiations.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s decision and remanded to the district court with instructions to issue the writ if the State does not reopen proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion within 180 days. See: Byrd v. Skipper, 940 F.3d 248 (6th Cir. 2019). 

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