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First Circuit Orders New Trial After Lawyer's Conflict of Interest: Sheperd

In Sheperd, the lawyer for the accused person also represented one of the star witnesses for the government.

Facts: Sheperd's defense counsel also represented government's star witness.

Sheperd was convicted in the district court for Medicare fraud. On appeal before the Fifth Circuit, Sheperd argued her Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel had been violated after it was discovered Sheperd’s pretrial counsel also represented one of the government’s star witnesses. The Fifth Circuit remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing on whether Shepherd’s lawyer’s conflict of interest, which the government was aware of, adversely affected counsel’s representation.

On remand, the district court answered the question affirmatively. The court found that Sheperd’s lawyer’s conflict of interest adversely affected counsel’s performance and violated Sheperd’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel.

Back before the Fifth Circuit, the appellate court ordered the parties to brief any issues arising from the district court’s conclusions, as well as any appropriate relief for the unconstitutional conflict. The government conceded that Sheperd’s Sixth Amendment right to conflict-free counsel was violated and that “some remedy” may be warranted. Thus, the Fifth Circuit was charged with determining what remedy was appropriate in a case where pretrial counsel’s conflict of interest affected Sheperd’s constitutional rights.

Court Holding:  Rights Violated, New Trial Ordered.

In the now well-known case of Lafler v. Cooper, the Supreme Court instructed that “Sixth Amendment remedies should be ‘tailored to the injury suffered from the constitutional violation and should not unnecessarily infringe on competing interests.’” Applying the principles of Lafler, the Fifth Circuit determined the appropriate remedy here was to vacate Sheperd’s convictions and remand for a new trial.

What stands out most about Sheperd’s case is the fact that the government never offered Sheperd a plea deal while she was represented by her conflicted pretrial counsel, or after. And while Sheperd did reject a plea deal well before her conflicted counsel began representing her, the government argued that the Fifth Circuit could not order it to reoffer the bargain without violating the separation-of-powers principles. In closing, the Fifth Circuit admonished:

The constitutional right to counsel is perhaps the central feature of our adversarial system, as it helps make real the Constitution’s other criminal procedure promise. And it is not lost on us that the Government knew Sheperd’s pretrial counsel was conflicted yet delayed informing the district court about it-for months. The Government’s proposed remedy-to keep the conviction intact but remand for new plea negotiations-wouldn’t neutralize the taint of the constitutional violation. After all, what would encourage the Government to offer a reasonable plea when it could hold intact convictions over Sheperd’s head? Nothing.

We VACATE Sheperd’s conviction and REMAND for a new trial.

United States v. Sheperd, No. 19-20073 (5th Cir. 2022)

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