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Trump Judge Ignores Evidence, Denies Ineffective Counsel Hearing: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

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Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

Despite evidence that could have validated the plaintiff’s claim, Trump Eighth Circuit judge Ralph Erickson cast the deciding vote to deny an evidentiary hearing on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The January 2020 case is Zachary Love v. United States.

In 2015, Zachary Love was charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute methamphetamines. Love’s appointed attorney told him that the prosecutor had offered a reduced sentence plea deal in exchange for a guilty plea. Love indicated that he wanted to accept the offer and requested the offer in writing.

Soon afterward, his attorney learned that he may have suffered from mental health conditions and a traumatic brain injury that could render him incompetent to stand trial, and moved to have him undergo a mental health evaluation. The mental evaluation took six weeks. During the process, Love asked his attorney about the status of the plea deal offer and his attorney told him not to worry.

After Love’s evaluation was completed, he was informed that the offer was no longer on the table. The evaluation report concluded that Love suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, traumatic brain injury, possible borderline intellectual functioning and substance abuse. The report also indicated that he was competent to stand trial and he understood the court process.

At trial, Love pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison rather than the 10 years he was offered in the plea deal. He claimed that his attorney mishandled the plea deal negotiations by allowing the offer to expire, and moved to vacate his sentence due to ineffective assistance of counsel. The district court denied Love’s motion without hearing Love’s evidence; Love appealed.

The majority, including Judge Erickson, agreed with the district court, and concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion to decline an evidentiary hearing because Love did not have facts to show his attorney acted unreasonably.

Judge Jane Kelly dissented.  She explained that the Sixth Amendment extends to plea deal negotiations and that Love’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim deserved an evidentiary hearing. Indeed, ineffective assistance too often leads to unjust outcomes; for Love, those consequences mean an additional two years in prison.