Fourth Circuit Adopts Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Presumption for Sleeping Lawyers

sleepingAll criminal defendants are entitled to certain constitutional protections before and after trial. They must be informed of their right to an attorney and their right to remain silent when being asked questions by law enforcement. At trial, defendants are constitutionally entitled to the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses who would testify against them, and to have an attorney by their side. More importantly, the attorney must provide them with effective assistance of counsel. If they are not provided with effective counsel, and the defendant is prejudiced as a result, this is a constitutional basis for overturning a criminal conviction.

The question of what constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel is a complicated one. In most instances, it turns on whether the actions or inactions of counsel so prejudiced the defendant as to prevent him or her from having a fair trial. In certain circumstances, however, the actions of counsel, such as failing to show up at court entirely, can be so markedly ineffective as to be presumptively prejudicial. This is because the decisions or failures of the counsel amount to a complete lack of assistance whatsoever.

In United States v. Ragin, the Fourth Circuit dealt with an issue of first impression regarding ineffective assistance of counsel. It looked at whether attorneys who fall asleep at trial fall so below the bar of effective assistance as to be presumptively prejudicial, thereby requiring that a defendant get a new trial. In Ragin, Mr. Ragin was charged with various counts related to the operation of an interstate drug and prostitution ring. He was assigned legal counsel named Nikita Mackey. Mr. Ragin and his co-defendants pled not guilty, and the government put on a two-and-a-half week trial during which multiple witnesses were called. At the end of the trial, Ragin was found guilty on all charges.

Before sentencing, Ragin presented a handwritten note to the judge complaining that his attorney, Mackey, had fallen asleep multiple times at trial. Despite the note, Ragin was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Shortly afterward, Ragin filed a motion to have his conviction and sentence vacated because his attorney had repeatedly fallen asleep at trial and was therefore an ineffective counsel. The district court held an evidentiary hearing at which multiple witnesses were called, including counsel for other co-defendants and jurors, all of whom testified that they had seen Mackey asleep at various times in the courtroom. However, the witnesses could not remember precisely when Mackey fell asleep or which important evidence he might have missed. The district court held that since it was not clear that Mackey’s sleeping had caused him to miss important parts of trial or otherwise act in a way that was prejudicial to Ragin, the motion would be denied.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit noted that the standard test, as set forth by the Supreme Court, for ineffective assistance of counsel is whether (1) the counsel’s performance was deficient, and (2) the deficient performance resulted in actual prejudice to the defendant. However, it also noted that in certain circumstances, prejudice may be presumed. This occurs in limited contexts in which the circumstances are so likely to have prejudiced a defendant that it is not worth litigating the question. Prejudice is presumed when counsel is not available to the defendant, or when counsel is denied during important stages of a trial. Several other circuits have also held that prejudice is presumed when counsel falls asleep for a “substantial portion” of a defendant’s trial, or at critical times.

Following the other circuits, the Fourth Circuit held that a criminal defendant would suffer from presumed prejudice, and ineffective assistance of counsel, if “his counsel was asleep during a substantial portion of the trial.” It then went on to consider whether the evidence supported such a finding in Ragin’s case. It noted that multiple witnesses had observed Mackey sleeping at different times and that jurors, who had the most direct view of Mackey, reported that they observed him sleeping multiple times a day, on and off. The court further noted that there was no evidence in the record to contest these witnesses’ statements, and even Mackey himself could not directly dispute that he was sleeping. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit held “we find it impossible not to conclude that Mackey slept, and was therefore not functioning as a lawyer during a substantial portion of the trial.” It then reversed and remanded the district court’s decision, granting Ragin’s motion to vacate the judgment.

If you are a criminal defendant who has previously been found guilty of a crime, and you believe your trial was prejudiced by ineffective assistance of counsel, it is important to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Likewise, if you believe you were treated unfairly by police during the criminal investigation process, and you were not informed of your right to an attorney, you may have constitutional claims that can be raised to defend against your charges. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

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Constitutional Protections for Juvenile Offenders in West Virginia

Asserting the Right to a Speedy Trial in West Virginia – State ex rel. Sorsaia v. Hon. Stowers