Washington, DC (June 23, 2005) -- The United States Supreme Court today held unconstitutional a Michigan law that greatly restricted the right to counsel on appeal for poor people who wish to challenge their sentence after pleading guilty. The decision in Halbert v. Michigan, No. 03-10198, is an important victory for proponents of a fair criminal justice system.
The Michigan law at issue in Halbert prohibited the appointment of appellate counsel to indigent defendants who have pled guilty or nolo contendere unless they fell within extremely limited exceptions. Michigan is the only state in the country that currently denies appointed counsel under these circumstances. Today’s decision will end that practice.
“I am very pleased with the decision,” said Professor David Moran, who represented Mr. Halbert in the Supreme Court. “Over 90 percent of felony convictions are obtained by guilty plea. This law denied all of those people their right to effectively challenge their sentences on appeal through competent counsel.”
“Over 30 percent of such sentencing appeals, historically, have been reversed in Michigan, which shows that mistakes happen at the trial court level and that the appellate court must be effective watchdogs,” added Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan.
Mr. Halbert's case proves this point. The judge had incorrectly scored the sentencing guidelines, resulting in a prison sentence almost three years longer than he should have received. “Michigan denied Mr. Halbert any chance of getting the error corrected because he is poor, while a defendant with money would be able to hire an attorney to correct the erroneous sentence,” said Moran.
Halbert’s learning disability forced him to rely on other inmates to prepare his appeal, even though he specifically requested a lawyer be appointed to help him. In the more than 40 years since the Gideon decision, the Supreme Court has recognized in over ten cases that access to competent defense counsel is a critical part of the criminal justice system.
“The scales of justice do not function unless they start out balanced. To be balanced, the defense must be as well-resourced and able as the prosecution,” said Malia Brink, Indigent Defense Counsel for NACDL.
“Michigan is part of a small group of states that is trying to increase expediency and cut costs by short-changing poor defendants. But this is penny wise and pound foolish. Unbalanced criminal justice systems, lead to costly errors, including increased appeals, unwarranted jail time, exonerations and the associated civil rights cases,” said Brink.
The decision also recognizes that indigent defendants need greater protection, not less. “Indigent defendants have a particularly difficult time navigating the appeals system because, as a group, these individuals are the poorest, least educated, and least literate members of our society,” added Anthony Franze of Arnold & Porter, one of the authors of the NACDL amicus brief filed in support of Mr. Halbert.
Seventeen other states, including Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas filed a friend of the court brief in support of Michigan, suggesting that this procedure, if upheld, could have become a national trend. “The kind of justice a person receives should not depend on whether someone is wealthy or poor,” said Brink. “We sincerely hope that this most recent admonition to the State’s to ensure that poor people accused of crimes receive competent counsel is well-heeded, not just in Michigan, but across the nation.”
To download the Brief in support of Halbert from the ACLU of Michigan site, click here.
To download NACDL's amicus curiae brief, click here.
Continue reading below
Cross-Examination Trial Pack
NACDL’s new Cross-Examination Trial Pack includes three of our best-selling Cross-Examination resources: “Damage Control: Situational Cross-Examination Techniques Trial Guide”, "Ultimate Cross 2.0: Audio Recordings & Written Materials" and "Sample Cross-Examination Questions."
This masterful collection of cross-examination resources provide countless tips, techniques and strategies for a variety of criminal case-specific scenarios. Learn to cross-examine a variety of trial witnesses!
Death Investigation: Forensic Pathology in the Courtroom and Cause & Manner of Death (2022)
This unique program provides criminal defense lawyers with an accurate and clear overview of forensic pathology and the countless factors to consider in a death investigation and will methodically explain what happens during an autopsy to determine cause and manner of death.
You'll uncover the different types of medicolegal death investigations, what to request from your MDI expert, quality benchmarks for accreditation and certification, guidelines and standards, common terminology and frequently asked questions.
The Psychology of Persuasion & Storytelling for Criminal Defense Lawyers
This Trial Resource Guide is a masterful collection of practical tips, techniques and strategies focused solely on using the arts and sciences of persuasion to improve your storytelling skills at trial.
You'll learn how to master the ability to communicate with juries, deliver powerful openings and closings, perform convincing cross-examinations, use effective courtroom choreography and non-verbal communication, identify and develop the optimal theme and theory for your case, and offer compelling arguments during mitigation and sentencing.
Zealous Advocacy in Sexual Assault & Child Victims Cases (2022)
Defending charges of sexual assault and child abuse can be daunting — but with the right tools, it doesn’t have to be.
Every year, NACDL identifies the hottest topics and most pressing issues when defending these cases, and brings-in nationally-renowned lawyers and experts to help you prepare for battle. This year’s 13th Annual Defending Sex Cases training program is our best yet; packed with topics and speakers you won’t want to miss!
NACDL Communications Department
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.