US Supreme Court upholds sentence for convicted murderer

file000619663500The US Supreme Court has rejected the appeal of a Michigan prison inmate who wanted her murder conviction overturned because she says she got bad advice from her lawyer.

VonLee Nicole Titlow says she was following her attorney’s direction when she dropped out of a deal to plead guilty to manslaughter and testify against her aunt. The two were accused of killing Titlow’s uncle by pouring vodka down his throat and smothering him.

Titlow would have received a sentence of seven to 15 years under the plea deal. Instead, she fired her attorney and hired a new lawyer who dropped the plea and took the case to trial in Oakland County. Her aunt was acquitted, but Titlow was convicted of second degree murder in a separate trial and sentenced to 20 to 40 years. Titlow says her new lawyer never paid proper attention to her case and, as a result, was ineffective.

The conviction and sentence were upheld by the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court. But the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and ordered the prosecutor to reinstate the plea bargain.

The US Supreme Court said there was nothing in the factual record to justify a federal court reversing the conviction.

“This decision means VonLee Titlow will remain behind bars for her second-degree murder conviction, and it’s also an important decision for state courts because the federal courts did not overturn state decisions and gave proper deference to what state courts had already decided in this case,” says Joy Yearout, press secretary for the Michigan Attorney General’s office.

“She took a gamble, decided to go to the jury instead of pleading guilty or no contest or some other approach, and she regretted that decision when she was convicted. And, you know, you can’t second-guess your decision when you go through our process and you’re convicted by a jury of your peers.”

Titlow’s appellate attorney says she doesn’t deserve a longer sentence because of sloppy legal work by her trial attorney.

“It’s unfortunate for my client because she’s going to keep her sentence of 20 to 40 years,” says Valerie Newman of the Michigan Appellate Defender’s Office.

But Newman says the decision is unlikely to have a big effect on laws and policies that deal with determining when a lawyer has done a poor job representing a criminal defendant, or what the remedies might be.

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