U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS summarily reverses 6th Circuit on ineffective assistance

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A federal appeals court applied the wrong standard when siding with a cocaine defendant who alleged ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a summary reversal.

In a per curiam opinion (PDF) on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a decision by the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of Timothy Etherton, who was convicted in Michigan of possession with intent to deliver cocaine.

Etherton had claimed ineffective assistance by the lawyer in his direct appeal for failing to raise claims about an anonymous tip, mentioned in police testimony at trial. The tipster had claimed there were two men in a white Audi, possibly carrying cocaine. Trial counsel didn’t object until the third mention, and claimed it was hearsay rather than a confrontation clause violation.

Etherton’s car matched the tipster’s description, and police found cocaine in a compartment in the door on the driver’s side after pulling it over in the fall of 2006. A passenger was also in the car; a central point of contention was whether the cocaine belonged to Etherton or the passenger. At trial, the passenger testified against Etherton.

The 6th Circuit had ruled Etherton’s lawyer on direct appeal had been constitutionally ineffective, and no fair-minded judge could conclude otherwise. The 6th Circuit said the statements about the tip had been admitted for their truth, violating Etherton’s rights under the confrontation clause, and he had been prejudiced by the violation.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. Its opinion said a fair-minded jurist might conclude the tip testimony wasn’t submitted for its truth, that Etherton was not prejudiced by it, and that the tip was consistent with Etherton’s defense—that it was his passenger who was responsible for the drugs.

“Without ruling on the merits of the court’s holding that counsel had been ineffective,” the Supreme Court said, “we disagree with the determination that no fair-minded jurist could reach a contrary conclusion, and accordingly reverse.”

The case is Woods v. Etherton.

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