Published on: Tuesday, November 2, 2021

A defendant serving 20 years in prison for a drug crime had her conviction and sentence vacated by the First Circuit because her appellate lawyer was ineffective (article available here).

Sandra Flores-Rivera was tried with two co-defendants for their roles in a drug operation. The primary evidence against them was testimony from other members of the drug ring. After the guilty verdicts were handed down, the prosecutor told the defense lawyers that he didn’t disclose several clearly relevant documents that called into question the credibility of the state’s witnesses.

Flores-Rivera’s co-defendants appealed, claiming their due process rights were violated, and won new trials. But Flores-Rivera’s lawyer argued two issues that hadn’t been preserved below—an evidentiary issue and constitutional challenge to her sentence. Both were easily rejected.

With the help of new counsel, Flores-Rivera claimed she was prejudiced by ineffective assistance of counsel.

Flores-Rivera was prejudiced by her attorney’s decision not to pursue her due process claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit said. Appellate counsel simply opted to forgo an obviously serious, preserved claim in favor of two dubious plain-error challenges that didn’t have a chance, the court said. “That choice resembles rejecting a lifeboat in favor of two lily pads,” it said.

“Fecklessness” isn’t a reasonable appellate strategy, the court said. 

The opinion is Flores-Rivera v. United States, No. 18-1963 (1st Cir. Oct. 29, 2021).