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Law School Case Brief

Lafler v. Cooper - 566 U.S. 156, 132 S. Ct. 1376 (2012)


Defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel, a right that extends to the plea-bargaining process. During plea negotiations defendants are entitled to the effective assistance of competent counsel. A two-part test applies to challenges to guilty pleas based on ineffective assistance of counsel. The performance prong of the test requires a defendant to show that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. 


Cooper was charged under Michigan law with assault with intent to murder and three other offenses. The prosecution offered to dismiss two of the charges and to recommend a 51-to-85-month sentence on the other two, in exchange for a guilty plea. In a communication with the court, Cooper admitted his guilt and expressed a willingness to accept the offer. But he rejected the offer, allegedly after his attorney convinced him that the prosecution would be unable to establish intent to murder because the victim had been shot below the waist. At trial, Cooper was convicted on all counts and received a mandatory minimum 185-to-360-month sentence. In a subsequent hearing, the state trial court rejected Cooper's claim that his attorney's advice to reject the plea constituted ineffective assistance. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting the ineffective-assistance claim on the ground that Cooper knowingly and intelligently turned down the plea offer and chose to go to trial. Respondent renewed his claim in federal habeas. Finding that the state appellate court had unreasonably applied the constitutional effective assistance standards laid out in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S. Ct. 2052, 80 L. Ed. 2d 674, and Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 106 S. Ct. 366, 88 L. Ed. 2d 203, the District Court granted a conditional writ and ordered specific performance of the original plea offer. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Applying Strickland, it found that counsel had provided deficient performance by advising respondent of an incorrect legal rule, and that respondent suffered prejudice because he lost the opportunity to take the more favorable sentence offered in the plea.


Is effective assistance of counsel a guaranteed right of Cooper?




The U.S. Supreme Court held that the inmate's fair trial did not preclude prejudice from counsel's ineffective assistance. The right to effective assistance of counsel was not solely to ensure a fair trial, and there was no indication that the fair trial cured counsel's error. Further, the inmate suffered prejudice rather than a windfall based on the likelihood that the outcome would have been different, since the inmate sought relief based on a failure to meet a valid legal standard rather than application of an incorrect legal principle. Also, a lack of prejudice could not be based on the reliability of the trial since the reliability of the pretrial bargaining, which caused the inmate to lose the benefits of the bargain, was the concern at issue. However, the appropriate remedy for counsel's error was to re-offer the plea bargain and conduct further proceedings in state court, rather than directing that the plea bargain be enforced.

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