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D.C. Circuit: Differing Counsel Effectiveness Findings Create Possible Injustice in Wired Plea Offer

In the case under review, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals found a defendant received adequate assistance of counsel where he was willing to accept the offer, but it found the co-defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel when he rejected the plea offer and forced the duo to trial.

Melvin Knight and Aaron Thorpe were arrested in 2013 for armed robbery and kidnapping. The U.S. Attorney offered a plea in D.C. Superior Court to a single count of assault with a dangerous weapon and no further charges stemming from the crimes would be filed. The plea offer was wired, so both Knight and Thorpe had to accept it or it would be withdrawn.

Thorpe wanted to accept the offer, but Knight, who was erroneously advised by his counsel that the offer came with 10 years in prison and was never informed of the sentencing consequences of rejecting the offer, did not.

Once the offer was rejected, the Government dismissed the Superior Court charges and prosecuted Knight and Thorpe on a 10-count indictment in federal court. A jury found them guilty on all counts, and the court sentenced Knight to more than 22 years in prison and Thorpe to 25 years’ imprisonment. They appealed, arguing they were denied effective assistance of counsel during the plea-bargaining stage of the proceeding.

The D.C. Court of Appeals found the claims were “colorable” and ordered the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing. While it found Knight’s counsel was deficient, it found Knight did not suffer prejudice. The court found Thorpe’s counsel was not ineffective.

On appeal, the Government did not dispute that Knight’s counsel was ineffective for failing to inform him that 10 years was the statutory maximum and that his sentencing Guidelines range was two to six years. It also did not dispute that counsel was ineffective for failing to inform Knight of the worst case scenario if he rejected the plea offer and Thorpe was willing to accept the offer. The Government, however, argued Knight suffered no prejudice.

The Court began by noting that the “Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the effective assistance of counsel at ‘critical stages of a criminal proceeding,’ including when he enters a guilty plea.” Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156 (2012). As with all ineffective assistance of counsel claims, the defendant must show that (1) counsel’s performance was deficient, as measured against prevailing professional norms under the circumstances and (2) the deficient performance was prejudicial. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). In order to satisfy the prejudice prong, the defendant must show there’s a reasonable likelihood that the outcome would have been different but for counsel’s ineffective performance. Missouri v. Frye, 566 U.S. 134 (2012).

In the context of plea bargaining, the Court noted that other Circuits “have recognized that a disparity in sentencing exposure may suffice to show prejudice under the second prong of Strickland.” Dodson v. Ballard, 800 F. App’x 171 (4th Cir. 2020); United States v. Herrera, 412 F.3d 577 (5th Cir. 2005); Griffin v. United States, 330 F.3d 733 (6th Cir. 2003); United States v. Day, 969 F.2d 39 (3d Cir. 1992).  

The Court rejected the Government’s argument that Knight didn’t suffer any prejudice as a result of his counsel’s ineffective performance. Both the Government and the district court “overlook[ed] the negative impact that counsel’s shortcomings had on Knight’s understanding of his circumstances at the time he was deciding whether to accept the plea offer,” wrote the Court. The email making the offer forewarned Knight’s counsel of a federal indictment and a greater sentence, but this information was never shared with Knight. “Even absent such forewarning, counsel is obligated to advise a client facing criminal charges of what the law, including sentencing guidelines, makes ‘clear’ and is ‘easily determined’ by competent counsel.”

Additionally, the Court found the fact that Thorpe, who was properly advised by counsel, was willing to accept the offer serves as contemporaneous evidence that had Knight been properly advised by counsel that he would have accepted the offer.

While the Court held Knight received ineffective assistance of counsel, it determined that Thorpe’s counsel was not ineffective. These holdings create a possible injustice, explained the Court, because it cannot order any relief for Thorpe’s inability to benefit from the wired plea offer. While it cannot order relief for Thorpe, “the government has the discretion to ameliorate any injustice that would result from permitting the adequately counseled defendant to accept the original offer but not the co-defendant whose counsel’s performance was inadequate.” Under Rule 48(a), Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the Government could seek dismissal of some or all of the charges against Thorpe, the Court stated.

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Related legal case

United States v. Knight



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