WASHINGTON -- Can a murderer escape a death sentence because he rejected a plea deal after receiving bad advice from his lawyer?
The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide that issue in the case of an Idaho man who slit the throat of a police informant 20 years ago. The case is the latest effort by the justices to decide whether a defense lawyer's mistakes warrant overturning a criminal's conviction or sentence.
It is also the latest move by the high court to reconsider a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco. In their last term, the justices restored murder convictions or death sentences for four defendants who had won before the 9th Circuit.
The new case began in 1987, when Max Hoffman, a drug dealer, joined two other men in killing the informant, Denise Williams, and disposing of her body. Hoffman was arrested after one of the other men confessed.
Five weeks before his trial, Hoffman was offered a deal: If he would plead guilty to first-degree murder, the state would not seek the death penalty.
His court-appointed lawyer advised him that Idaho's death penalty law was likely to be struck down as unconstitutional because it was nearly identical to an Arizona law that had recently been overturned by that state's high court.
For his part, Hoffman doubted that he was guilty of first-degree murder because the other men had played lead roles. In 1989, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
The lawyer's prediction proved wrong. The Idaho Supreme Court upheld its death penalty law and affirmed Hoffman's sentence.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit overturned Hoffman's death sentence because of his lawyer's "deficient performance."
In his opinion, Judge Harry Pregerson wrote that rejecting the deal was "a risky proposition with a substantial downside." Were it not for his lawyer's "flawed advice," Pregerson said, "there is a more reasonable probability that he would have accepted the plea."
In July, Idaho prosecutors appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the 9th Circuit should not be allowed to "second-guess" a defense lawyer based on "hindsight." Yesterday, the high court said it would hear the case of Arave v. Hoffman early next year.
Meanwhile, the court also restored a death sentence for a serial killer from Alabama, ruling that he had waited too long to file an appeal in federal court.
Daniel L. Siebert was sentenced to death for killing Sherri Weathers, an adult student at an Alabama school for the deaf, and her two children. Siebert received a separate death sentence for killing another student the same night. In addition, he admitted to a series of other killings. He is awaiting execution for the Weathers murders.
David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.