The Supreme Court today affirms the death sentence in People v. Hoyt for the 2000 kidnapping and murder of a teenager. The court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Leondra Kruger rejects a variety of arguments, including that California courts didn’t have jurisdiction because the murder occurred inside a national forest, a claim requiring in part interpretation of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Additionally, the court finds to be error, but harmless, defendant’s compelled mental examinations by prosecution experts and the admission of those experts’ testimony based on the examinations.
Also, in rejecting a Miranda violation argument, the court, among other things, announces a rule that might never have been articulated before: “There is nothing coercive about allowing a detained suspect to call his mother.”
Of particular interest is the court’s upholding of the superior court’s denial of a new trial motion, a motion based in part on ineffective assistance of counsel. As stated by the court, the defendant’s retained counsel “had been admitted to the State Bar just two years before the trial began and . . . resign[ed] from the Bar [with charges pending against her] before the proceedings were over,” and she had entered into agreements with the defendant giving her “an ‘exclusive grant’ to the media and literary rights to his background and story and . . . waiv[ing] attorney-client privilege to permit [her] to speak and write about his criminal case.”
The court concludes (1) counsel’s “brief history as a lawyer and the circumstances of her resignation from the bar do not establish that defendant was totally deprived of counsel during trial, requiring automatic reversal of the judgment,” (2) the defendant did not show “the trial record alone establishes that [counsel’s] performance fell below professional norms and that there is a reasonable probability that her deficient performance affected the result,” and (3) although creating “the potential for a conflict of interest,” the agreements — which hadn’t been executed until after the jury’s verdicts — weren’t shown to have established “‘an actual conflict of interest “that affected counsel’s performance.” ’ ”
This is likely not the final word on the defendant’s ineffective counsel claims. As the court’s opinion notes, appellate review is limited and many such claims “‘are more appropriately resolved in a habeas corpus proceeding.’ ” In fact, the defendant filed a habeas petition in 2014 and briefing in that matter is far along.
This is also not the only pending death penalty appeal raising issues of conflicts by retained defense counsel. At oral argument just three weeks ago, the court addressed lawyer-loyalty questions in People v. Fayed.