The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently refused to overturn the murder conviction of a man who later found out his criminal defense lawyer had a prior dating relationship with the prosecutor in the case, and then with another prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Appellate Division while he was handling his criminal appeal.
The defendant, John Stote, was convicted after a criminal jury trial for the 1997 murder of a man in Springfield, and then disposing of his body in the Connecticut River. In his appeal, the convicted murder appealed his conviction, claiming his criminal trial counsel’s prior dating relationship with the prosecuting attorney created a conflict of interest.
In its decision, Commonwealth v. John Stote, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected both of the Defendant’s arguments on appeal:
- that the defendant’s criminal trial counsel should have told him of his prior personal relationship with the Hamden County prosecutor; and
- that the criminal attorney further failed to inform the defendant of his dating relationship with another prosecutor in the Hamden District Attorney’s Office Appellate Division while he was then representing the defendant on the appeal for his murder conviction.
In her decision, Judge Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Court frowned upon the trial attorney’s failure to disclose his relationships with prosecutors to his client, but ultimately ruled that there was neither “an actual conflict of interest nor a potential conflict that resulted in material prejudice in [the defendant’s] appeal.” Despite rejecting the defendant’s appeal, the Court did note that an attorney’s professional and ethical responsibility to inform their clients of any intimate personal relationship that might impair his ability to provide unimpaired assistance of counsel.
Boston Criminal Attorney Disagrees with Court’s Ruling:
In my opinion, the Massachusetts Supreme Court found an ‘out’ for not giving this man a new trial. Its decision relied on the reasoning that Stote did not show any ‘actual’ or ‘genuine’ conflict on the part of Stote’s criminal defense attorney as a result of his dating relationships.
What is perplexing, however, is that in its very ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Court acknowledged that the Rules of Professional Conduct clearly state that
“A lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation of that client may be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client or to a third person, by the lawyer’s own interests, unless: (1) the lawyer reasonably believes the representation will not be adversely affected; AND (2) the client consents after consultation.”
The Court further noted that a “lawyer’s personal interests surely include…anyone with whom he is comparably intimate.” Going one step even further, the Supreme Court even went on to acknowledge that “Where a criminal defense lawyer “represents a client and close relative or an intimate companion is a colleague of the prosecutor who seeks to convict the client, the requirements of the rule MUST be met.”
Since it’s clear that the criminal defense lawyer never even informed his client of both personal relationships, one at the criminal trial and the other during the criminal appeal following his murder conviction, then didn’t the lawyer clearly violated the Rules of Professional Conduct? How does the Court go from acknowledging that the well-established and ethical rules regarding conflicts “MUST” be met, of which they were not in this case, but then fail to find sufficient cause to give this man a new opportunity to a fair trial?
Although there might be ‘legal precedent’ for the Court’s decision in Stote, the Massachusetts Supreme Court should have taken this opportunity to amend their stance on this issue and tighten the reins on issues affecting the attorney-client relationship. After all, Article 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights affords a criminal defendant the right to full and undivided loyalty of his attorney. Where the attorney’s loyalty to his client is impaired, that criminal defendant should be entitled to a new trial without having to prove, in his appeal, actual prejudice.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision in this case is unfortunate…one might wonder if John Stote was appealing his conviction for another crime and not a murder conviction, whether the result might have been different…
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