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SCOTUS: Brief absence of attorney during testimony regarding co-defendants wasn’t per se ineffective under United States v. Cronic

Woods v. Donald, USSC No. 14-618, 2015 WL 1400852, 3/30/15 (per curiam), reversing Donald v. Rapelje, 580 Fed. Appx. 227 (6th Cir. 2014) (unpublished); docket

Trial counsel’s absence during about 10 minutes of testimony regarding evidence relating to Donald’s co-defendants—evidence trial counsel said he had “no interest in”—did not amount to a denial of counsel at a critical stage of trial justifying a presumption of prejudice under United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984). Thus, the Sixth Circuit erred in granting Donald habeas relief on that ground.

…. The Michigan Court of Appeals’ decision was not contrary to any clearly established holding of this Court. We have never addressed whether the rule announced in Cronic applies to testimony regarding codefendants’ actions. In Cronic itself, we rejected the defendant’s claim that his counsel’s lack of experience and short time for preparation warranted a presumption of prejudice, not a claim based on counsel’s absence. See 466 U.S., at 663–666. When announcing the rule in Cronic, we cited earlier cases finding prejudice where “counsel was either totally absent, or prevented from assisting the accused during a critical stage of the proceeding.” Id., at 659, n. 25. But none of those cases dealt with circumstances like those present here. …

Because none of our cases confront “the specific question presented by this case,” the state court’s decision could not be “contrary to” any holding from this Court. Lopez v. Smith574 U.S. ___, ___ [135 S.Ct. 1, 4] (2014) (per curiam). …

Nor was the state court’s decision an unreasonable application of our cases. The Sixth Circuit stated “that a critical stage of trial is a ‘step of a criminal proceeding … that h[olds] significant consequences for the accused.’” 580 Fed. Appx., at 284 (quoting Bell [v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685,] 696 [(2002)]). And it held that the Michigan Court of Appeals’ decision was “objectively unreasonable” because the phone call evidence might have indirectly inculpated Donald in the eyes of the jury. But that holding is not correct. Just last Term we warned the Sixth Circuit that “where the ‘“precise contours”’ of [a] right remain ‘“unclear,”’ state courts enjoy ‘broad discretion’ in their adjudication of a prisoner’s claims.” White [v. Woodall], 572 U.S. [___,] ___ [134 S.Ct. 1697, 1705 [(2014)] [quoted sources omitted]. Within the contours of Cronic, a fairminded jurist could conclude that a presumption of prejudice is not warranted by counsel’s short absence during testimony about other defendants where that testimony was irrelevant to the defendant’s theory of the case. (Slip op. at 5-7).

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