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Law School Case Brief

Douglas v. United States - 488 A.2d 121 (D.C. 1985)


To protect the right to conflict-free counsel, the trial court has an affirmative duty to inquire into the effectiveness of counsel whenever the possibility of a conflict becomes apparent before or during trial. If such an inquiry reveals that an actual conflict of interest exists, and defendant objects to continued representation by the conflict-burdened attorney, new counsel must be appointed. A failure to appoint new counsel under these circumstances will lead to a reversal of any conviction obtained at trial. Even in cases where defendant does not object at trial to an attorney's representation, a Sixth Amendment violation warranting reversal will be established if a convicted defendant demonstrates on appeal that an actual conflict of interest adversely affected his lawyer's performance. Although a defendant who fails to object at trial must demonstrate that a conflict of interest actually affected the adequacy of his representation in order to succeed with an ineffective assistance claim on appeal, he or she need not go so far as to show that the conflict prejudiced the outcome of the case. Moreover, certain personal conflicts of interest may so undermine an attorney's ability to render adequate representation that they require reversal without regard to whether defendant objected at trial or is able to show on appeal that adverse effect resulted from the conflict. 


Appellant sought review from an order of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, which denied his pretrial motion to dismiss an indictment charging him with armed assault with intent to kill, armed assault with intent to rob, armed robbery, carrying a pistol without a license, and unauthorized use of a vehicle, on grounds of double jeopardy. Prior to appellant's first trial, he lodged a complaint against his counsel for insufficient effort to obtain a bond reduction. Although it was determined that counsel had not rendered ineffective assistance, the trial judge felt that the complaint and consequent inquiry created a conflict of interest and declared a mistrial sua sponte. On appeal of the order denying appellant's motion to dismiss the second trial, the court reversed and held that the second trial would violate his rights under the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment.


Did the trial judge err in  his finding that the conflict of interest would have adversely affected the counsel's ability to render effective assistance to appellant at trial?




Double jeopardy had already attached and appellant had not consented to the mistrial, but instead, had requested that the trial continue with counsel as his attorney.The court concluded that the trial court erred by not investigating the possibility of a less drastic alternative, such as having appellant waive his right to conflict-free counsel, before rejecting appellant's request to go forward with the first trial. The court acknowledged the conflict of interest between attorney and appellant, however, there was no manifest necessity that the trial not continue under the alternative measure. Accordingly, the indictment was dismissed.

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