- Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
- Area(s) of Law: Post-Conviction Relief
- Date Filed: 10-18-2022
- Case #: No. 15-99005
- Judge(s)/Court Below: Bea, Circuit Judge, for the Court, Gould, Circuit Judge, & Berzon, Circuit Judge, dissenting
- Full Text Opinion
Michaels was arrested and interrogated about his then-girlfriend’s mother’s murder. When prompted to tell the detectives “what happened” after being read his Miranda rights, Michaels replied, “I don’t know if I should without an attorney.” Regardless, this line of questioning continued and led to Michaels’s confession. Over the course of his trial, Michaels was represented by two pairs of attorneys before he was given permission to proceed pro se. During trial, Michaels gave his first pair of attorneys a note threatening bodily harm to his co-defendant if they were seated together. The note was given to the judge, reviewed, and sealed along with the ex parte transcript. Later, the second pair of attorneys joined the prosecution’s motion to unseal the documents without knowing their contents. Michaels was ultimately convicted of capital murder and received a death sentence.
Michaels argued that his confession was inadmissible because it was a violation of his Miranda rights. If a suspect “indicates in any manner, at any time prior to or during questioning, that he wishes to remain silent,” officers must cease the interrogation. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 473-74 (1966). The Miranda rights invocation must be “unambiguous.” Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, 459 (1994). Because Michaels unambiguously invoked his Miranda rights by declining to answer the question “what happened?” without an attorney, it was a constitutional error to continue this line of questioning. There was, however, overwhelming evidence of guilt on the record aside from the confession. Therefore, this error was harmless because it did not have a "substantial and injurious effect or influence on the jury" during the guilt phase. Sessoms v. Grounds, 776 F.3d 615, 629 (9th Cir. 2015) (en banc).
Michaels asserted ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) claims against his first pair of attorneys for their decision to disclose the confidential note to the judge, and against his second pair of attorneys for their decision to join the prosecution’s motion to unseal the documents without knowledge of their contents. Ineffective assistance of counsel claims require that “counsel’s performance was deficient,” and that the “deficient performance prejudiced [defendant’s] defense.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). While Michaels’s failure to raise the IAC in state court was a procedural default, this error was excused under Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1 (2012) because: (1) the IAC claim was substantial because it had some merit and Michaels demonstrated a substantial claim of prejudice resulting from the deficient performance; and (2) Michaels established cause because his initial post-conviction relief (PCR) attorneys rendered ineffective assistance by failing to raise the claim and there was reasonable probability that Michaels would have been granted relief by the PCR court if they had raised it. The first pair’s disclosure of the note was constitutionally deficient performance because there was no plausible exception to the duty of confidentiality that would have permitted the disclosure. The second pair’s decision to join the prosecution’s motion to unseal the record was also constitutionally deficient performance because any competent attorney would have investigated the contents of the documents before agreeing to their disclosure.
Michaels claimed the trial court violated his Sixth Amendment right by denying his motion for substitution of counsel after an irreconcilable conflict developed between him and one of the attorneys from his second pair of trial counsel. The dispositive question when defendants complain of conflicts with their attorneys that are conflicts of their own making is whether counsel provided adequate counsel according to standards established in Strickland. See Plumlee v. Masto, 512 F.3d 1204, 1211 (9th Cir. 2008) (en banc). Because the attorney reasonably prepared for the representation and the conflict arose from Michaels’s failure to communicate, the trial court did not err in denying Michaels’s motion for substitution of counsel.
Michaels asserted a final IAC claim against the second attorney in his second pair of trial counsel, who advised Michaels to proceed pro se while he stayed on as advisory counsel. Under Strickland, ineffective assistance of counsel claims require that the “deficient performance prejudiced [defendant’s] defense.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. Michaels failed to show he was prejudiced by this advice, and because the attorney conducted the entirety of the pretrial, trial, and penalty proceedings in his capacity as advisory counsel, his performance was not deficient. This IAC claim was accordingly rejected.
Michaels assigned error to the trial court’s failure to conduct a sua sponte competency hearing, arguing that he was incompetent for a number of reasons. To be competent to stand trial, a defendant must have “sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding . . . [and] a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U.S. 348, 354 (1996) (alterations in original). The trial court’s conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to require a sua sponte competency hearing was supported by the record because many of the competency-related facts that Michaels presented did not suggest an incompetency to stand trial.
The district court’s judgment denying a writ of habeas corpus with respect to the guilt phase is affirmed. With respect to the penalty phase, the majority finds no cumulative or other prejudice, and affirms the denial of the petition.