Singley v. United States

548 A.2d 780 (D.C. 1988)

 

RULE:

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.

FACTS:

Defendant challenged his convictions from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia for armed robbery. In consolidated appeals, defendant challenged two unrelated convictions of armed robbery after two separate trials. The court reversed and remanded the first case for a new trial and affirmed the second conviction.

 In the first case, the court held that the trial court committed reversible error by failing to conduct an inquiry after the government raised a possible conflict of interest by defendant's counsel. The court stated that the trial court had an affirmative duty to inquire into the effectiveness of counsel whenever the "possibility of a conflict" became apparent. The government had informed the trial court that defendant's counsel had apparently represented the key witness against defendant and thus, had confidential information that he used to impeach the witness. The trial court had declined to conduct a specific inquiry of either the key witness or defendant's counsel and simply gave an instruction for the jury to disregard the witness's statements on cross-examination and prevented defendant's counsel from arguing the bias of the witness. The court concluded that an actual conflict had been created by the trial court's actions, so a new trial was warranted.

ISSUE:

Were the facts in the instant case sufficient to alert the trial court to "the possibility of a conflict," and thus gave rise to a duty on the part of the court to inquire further?

ANSWER:

Yes.

CONCLUSION:

The court stated that the trial court had an affirmative duty to inquire into the effectiveness of counsel whenever the "possibility of a conflict" became apparent. The government had informed the trial court that defendant's counsel had apparently represented the key witness against defendant and thus, had confidential information that he used to impeach the witness. The trial court had declined to conduct a specific inquiry of either the key witness or defendant's counsel and simply gave an instruction for the jury to disregard the witness's statements on cross-examination and prevented defendant's counsel from arguing the bias of the witness. The court concluded that an actual conflict had been created by the trial court's actions, so a new trial was warranted.

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