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Samuels v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Kentucky

March 23, 2017



          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Brandon Neil Jewell Assistant Public Advocate

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Leilani K.M. Martin Assistant Attorney General



         Darryl Samuels was convicted of second-degree assault for fighting with, and biting off the ear of, a fellow inmate. A public defender from the local Department of Public Advocacy (DPA) office was appointed to represent him. Prior to trial, his counsel advised the trial court that another attorney in the local DPA office was representing the alleged victim in an unrelated matter. The court determined that this did not present a conflict of interest that would otherwise require appointment of new counsel and allowed the trial to proceed.

         In this case, we are called upon to answer the following questions. Is a public defender's conflict of interest necessarily imputed to all other public defenders in the same Public Defender office? Of course the underlying and additional question is whether Samuels was denied his Sixth Amendment right to conflict-free counsel? The answer to both of these questions is no.

         I. Background

         On July 9, 2008, Samuels and Christopher Gravett, his then-cellmate at the McCracken County jail, got into a physical fight in which Samuels bit off Gravett's ear. As a result, Samuels was charged with second-degree assault. His primary defense to the charge was self-defense. Carolyn Keeley, a public defender working in the DPA's Paducah trial office, was appointed to represent him.

         In the meantime, Gravett had his own, unrelated legal trouble for which a different public defender from the Paducah office, John Johnson, was appointed to represent him. Gravett ultimately pleaded guilty in that matter, and Johnson's representation of him ended when his motion for shock probation was denied on May 12, 2009, eight days before Samuels's trial on the alleged second-degree assault of Gravett.

         On the morning of Samuels's trial on May 20, Keeley disclosed to the trial court, among other things, her office's past representation of Gravett, which she (incorrectly) believed was still then ongoing. At that time, she also provided a waiver for Samuels to sign that laid out the potential conflict. But he refused to sign the waiver and requested the appointment of new counsel. The trial court denied the request, concluding that there was no conflict, and ordered the trial to proceed.

         Samuels was convicted of second-degree assault and sentenced to ten years in prison.

         He appealed to the Court of Appeals, claiming that the trial court's refusal to appoint new counsel had violated his right to conflict-free counsel under the Sixth Amendment. He argued that a conflict of interest resulted from Keeley's past representation of two prosecution witnesses and from the Paducah Trial Office's dual representation of him and Gravett. Although the audio of the pre-trial in-chambers discussion where these potential conflicts were brought to the. trial court's attention was largely inaudible, the Court of Appeals discerned that there had been "very little questioning" by the trial court on this issue. In. light of this, the Court of Appeals held that "[b]ecause a conflict of interest is such a pivotal question, ... a new hearing is required, complete with findings of fact and conclusions of law." The case was thus / remanded for "[t]he trial court [to] determine if the two witnesses and victim / were being actively represented by Samuels' defense counsel or the Paducah / DPA in general and whether or not there was a conflict of interest."

         On remand, the only conflict argued by Samuels pertained to the Paducah Trial Office's overlapping representation of Gravett. (The issue of whether the past representation of the two witnesses presented conflicts of / interest was abandoned and is no longer an issue in this case.)

         At the evidentiary hearing, Keeley testified that she did hot think that the overlapping representation had created an actual conflict of interest. And her supervisor, Directing Attorney Chris McNeill, testified similarly. Keeley testified that, despite this belief, she had raised this issue with the court and attempted to have her client waive any potential conflict "out of an abundance of caution." There was also testimony that neither Keeley nor Johnson, the Paducah public defender who had represented Gravett, had worked on or known anything about the other's case.

         Following the hearing, the trial court determined that Samuels had not demonstrated that an actual conflict had existed at his trial. In particular, the court found that Samuels had not shown that Keeley had been unable to fully | represent him or that she had taken or omitted any actions as a result of the alleged conflict. The court also found that no complaint had been raised about Keeley's cross-examination of Gravett, nor had any confidential information been shared about Samuels or Gravett as a result of the dual representation.

         Samuels again appealed to the Court of Appeals, who this time affirmed, but for different reasons. Despite finding error in many of the trial court's findings and conclusions, as will be discussed in detail below, the Court of Appeals agreed in the end that Samuels had not shown that his lawyer had an unconstitutional conflict, of interest during her representation of him.

         This Court granted Samuels's motion for discretionary review and affirms.

         II. Analysis

         A. Samuels and Gravett had adverse interests during Samuels's criminal proceedings.

         Criminal defendants have the right under the Sixth Amendment-as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, see Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)-"to have the Assistance of Counsel for [their] defence." U.S. Const, amend. VI. This "right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance of counsel." United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 654 (1984) (quoting McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 759, 771 n.14 (1970)). And the right to effective assistance of counsel includes the right that counsel be conflict-free. Glasser v. United States, 315 U.S. 60, 70 (1942), superseded inpart on other grounds by Fed. R. Evid. 104(a) ("[T]he 'Assistance of Counsel' guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment contemplates that such assistance be untrammeled and unimpaired by a court order requiring that one lawyer shall simultaneously represent conflicting interests."); see also Bartley v. Commonwealth, 400 S.W.3d 714, 719 (Ky. 2013).

         The upshot of the Court of Appeals' opinion is that it affirmed the trial court's ultimate conclusion that Samuels's public defender had no actual conflict of interest while representing him-in other words, that he received the conflict-free counsel to which he was entitled under the Sixth Amendment. In signing off on that, however, the Court of Appeals first criticized several aspects of the trial courts' findings and conclusions. So we begin our discussion by addressing and agreeing with those criticisms.

         First, the Court of Appeals was correct to take issue with the trial court's findings to the extent they focused on the performance of Samuels's attorney. Specifically, the trial court's decision relied, in part, on its findings that "no showing was made that Ms. Keeley was unable to give her best representation"; "[n]o showing was made that Ms. Keeley took steps or omitted actions that would have helped either the Defendant or Mr. ...

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