Conflict of Interest Leads to New Hearing for Client
New York Law Journal
December 7, 2000
facing nine years in prison for armed robbery may get a chance to withdraw
his guilty plea because of his attorney's conflict of interest.
On Tuesday U.S. District Judge Robert W. Sweet of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York found that Elias Guzman should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and receive new counsel because his plea was made while under the influence of medication and amid questions about whether or not he was coerced into admitting guilt.
The decision in Guzman v. Sabourin, 00 Civ. 1358, gives Guzman a new hearing in state court with a new attorney and possibly a trial on the merits of his case.
Guzman, appearing before New York County Supreme Court Justice Harold J. Rothwax in March 1997, asked that he be assigned new counsel in place of attorney Joseph Ronson.
Guzman told the court that in a suppression hearing, Ronson had mistakenly conceded that Guzman was found in possession of a box-cutter knife when, in fact, the knife was found a few feet away.
Rothwax, who died in October 1997, denied the motion for reassignment of counsel -- a decision that was affirmed the next day after the case had shifted to Supreme Court Justice Michael Gross.
Ronson told Gross that Guzman was suffering from "significant pain" from carpal tunnel syndrome and had taken "considerable medication," adding that, while he was "not in position" to assess Guzman's inability to understand the proceedings, his client might still be willing to plead guilty. The plea agreement called for Guzman to receive a sentence of nine years, rather than the 25 years he would have received had he been convicted.
Sweet said the ensuing plea allocution "was not a model of clarity."
Guzman initially said he wanted to plead guilty, then asked for more time to think about it. He then said he was ready to go forward. But when asked to admit the crime, Guzman did not respond and the court called a 20-minute recess. Upon resumption, Justice Gross asked Guzman if the facts stated in the indictment were true, to which Guzman replied, "No."
Ronson then told the judge, "I haven't heard anything in my discussions with him which would require me to tell the court there was no legal or factual basis for a guilty plea in this case. He wishes you to consider and continue the allocution that started earlier."
When the allocution resumed, Gross did not ask about Guzman's medicated state. But the judge did ask Guzman what weapon was used in the alleged robbery.
The plea was accepted after Guzman replied, "Whatever they have. I don't know . . . a sharp object."
At the sentencing, Ronson told Gross that his client was making a pro se motion to withdraw the guilty plea, largely because he was coerced into taking the plea and was over-medicated during the allocution.
Ronson told the court, "If I was in receipt of information that the defendant was disoriented, and unable to proceed to hearing and trial, I would have made that plain to the court."
But Ronson agreed that Guzman should receive new counsel because of the inherent conflict of interest involved should Ronson be forced to argue his own ineffectiveness.
Gross denied Guzman's motion to withdraw the plea and for new counsel.
"I don't understand it," Guzman told the court. "I don't. I want my plea back. I want to go to trial."
In his petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court, Guzman charged that Ronson "abandoned his role as advocate by testifying against Guzman's motion to withdraw his plea on the grounds of coercion despite the obvious conflict of interest involved."
Judge Sweet found the conflict facing Ronson rendered him ineffective.
"Throughout the hearing, Ronson obviously attempted to heed the tenuous line between advocacy for his client, the professional obligations not to make false proffers to the court, and protecting his own professional reputation," Sweet said. "However, under repeated questioning from the trial judge about Ronson's own conduct, Ronson crossed the line into defending himself at the expense of his client's motion."
Sweet said Ronson's "necessarily self-serving statements" as to coercion and the effect of medication on his client influenced Gross' findings on the voluntariness of the plea.
"Ronson's responses to the trial judge's questions regarding Guzman's ineffective assistance motion created an actual conflict of interest between attorney and client that deprived Guzman of the right to a full and fair determination of his claim," Sweet said.
Once Ronson responded to questions from the judge about coercion and "his interaction with Guzman leading up to the guilty plea," Sweet said, "Ronson stopped acting as an advocate for his client."
The trial court, Sweet said, should not have asked Ronson to comment on the merits of Guzman's claims, he said, but "should have appointed new counsel to represent Guzman in the motion to withdraw his plea."
Guzman appeared pro se.
Assistant Attorney General Melinda Chester-Spitzer represented the State.