Defendant Seeks New Trial Based on Ineffective Assistance of Somebody Else’s Counsel

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Surprisingly, a man convicted of murdering his entire family has lost his bid for a new trial despite his argument that defense counsel's conduct was so "public and obnoxious" it hurt his case. This already weak argument (see Jerry Sandusky's lawyers) was not improved by the fact that the defense counsel he was talking about had represented somebody else. It was further embaddened by the fact that the defense counsel he was talking about hadn't even been in the same courtroom.

The Chicago Tribune reports (via Jonathan Turley) that the lawyer for convicted quadruple murderer Christopher Vaughn argued that his client was entitled to a new trial because of the conduct of lawyers for Drew Peterson, who was on trial in the courtroom next door for murdering one of his four wives. Vaughn's lawyer reportedly criticized Peterson's defense team for holding press conferences, during one of which they referred to the fact that Peterson's fourth wife is missing (Peterson was convicted of murdering his third). The "show" they put on was so distasteful, he argued, that it "gave criminal-defense attorneys—all of us—a black eye," and could have prejudiced Vaughn's jury against his lawyer and thus weakened his defense.

But as the ABA Journal reports, the judge found this argument had significant problems, such as the lack of any evidence that the jurors in Vaughn's trial were even aware of the press conferences, let alone that they had developed a general distaste for criminal-defense attorneys or that, if they had, it would have affected their decision in Vaughn's case. This is not to say that the judge was impressed with Peterson's lawyers. Quite the contrary. But this didn't help Vaughn's position because it only made his lawyer look better by comparison, the judge said. In fact, if the description was accurate, it would have made him look like "the second coming of Clarence Darrow." (Maybe he laid it on a little too thick in his motion.)

Okay, you don't like that argument, I got 50 more, Vaughn's attorney probably didn't say but could have, based on the Tribune's report that his motion cited no fewer than 51 grounds for a new trial. It is true that any litigant has to be concerned about preserving possible arguments for appeal, especially a criminal defendant who has just lost. It is also true that once you get past the first three or so, the credibility of subsequent arguments declines pretty fast. There is no bright-line rule here, but I think most of us would agree that, let's say, 50 is plenty. Yes, while you are drafting Argument No. 50, you might consider whether No. 51 is at all likely to help. That is some free advice that you hopefully don't need.

So, it is not surprising that some of the additional 50 provide additional entertainment. Here's one: the fact that the jury took only 45 minutes to convict and did not ask to review any evidence. "Forty-five minutes and not asking for any exhibits, not wanting to hear any testimony, that's extremely rare," Vaughn's lawyer argued. "I've never had that situation before and that's odd." Here's the problem—there are two possible explanations for that: (1) the jury was biased against you and/or your client and so didn't care about the evidence, or (2) the jury did pay attention to the evidence and thinks your client is guilty as hell. The fact they didn't even want to hang around for a free meal suggests they really didn't like the defendant, again possibly because they thought he was clearly guilty of murdering his wife and three young children. I don't know which explanation is right in this case, but the problem for the defense is that, to get a new trial, it had the burden to show it was the first one.

I don't have a copy of the new-trial motion, but that's probably a good thing. There really isn't room here to critique another four dozen arguments. Speaking of four, Vaughn was sentenced to four life terms shortly after his motion was denied. Again, free advice, but the rule of 50 above should also apply to appellate briefs.