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The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered that a convicted drug dealer be resentenced because his pretrial lawyer was conflicted by his own participation in criminal activity with the defendant. In an opinion written by Judge Chester J. Straub, the appellate court found that the lawyer’s conflict violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel and prevented him from pursuing plea agreements or other avenues besides trial. The court ordered that the defendant be given a sentence consistent with what he would have received with the benefit of unconflicted counsel. “Even though a defendant does not have a right to a plea agreement, we provide relief to defendants who suffer from constitutionally defective counsel during pretrial stages,” Judge Straub wrote in U.S. v. Williams, 02-1643. David Williams, described as a leader in one of Buffalo, N.Y.’s biggest cocaine rings, was convicted by a federal jury of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, money laundering, possession with intent to distribute cocaine, unlawful possession of firearms and four counts of unlawfully using a communication facility. He received a life sentence in October 2002. After his January 1999 arrest, Williams hired Anthony F. Leonardo to represent him. Shortly thereafter, Mark Overall, a co-defendant of Williams, began cooperating with the prosecution. He told authorities that Leonardo had provided firearms silencers to Williams in 1998 and the two conspired to hide a witness who was going to testify against another client of Leonardo’s in a state rape prosecution. Leonardo was simultaneously being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for his alleged involvement in money laundering and narcotics violations. After his business partner was murdered with a silenced firearm in 2000, Leonardo became a subject of the investigation, based on Overall’s testimony. Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York moved to have Leonardo disqualified, but not initially on the grounds of his criminal activity. Leonardo was finally disqualified on Jan. 8, 2001, following his Dec. 29, 2000, arrest for drug and firearm violations. He later pleaded guilty to facilitating the murder of his business partner. The 2nd Circuit panel, which also included Judges Rosemary Pooler and Barrington Parker, found that Leonardo’s involvement in firearms trading with Williams created an actual conflict between the lawyer and his client, given the former’s later indictment on firearms charges. “Whether or not the crimes for which Williams was indicted involved particular firearms transacted with Leonardo is irrelevant,” the judge wrote. “At least some of Leonardo’s criminal conduct was of the same type as at least some of the criminal conduct for which Williams was prosecuted, and the fact that they engaged in that criminal activity jointly provides the necessary link between their crimes.” Though prosecutors acknowledged the conflict, they said they would never have offered a plea deal for less than life imprisonment to Williams given his leading position in a large narcotics distribution enterprise. The appellate panel said the government’s position was irrelevant as long as Williams’ lawyer made no effort whatsoever to strike a deal. The court expressed skepticism that the government would have taken such a hard line in the face of true advocacy. COURT, PROSECUTION CRITICIZED The court also chastised the lower court, overseen by Western District Judge Richard Arcara, and the prosecution for failing to act on clear knowledge that Leonardo and Williams had been involved in criminal activity together. “Yet, the government and the District Court would blame Williams, the least legally sophisticated party, for failing to take action based on the conflict,” Judge Straub wrote, noting that federal courts have an independent interest in making sure criminal trials are conducted fairly and ethically. The court acknowledged it would be difficult to conduct a hearing and grant Williams a sentence taking into account the damage done by his conflicted counsel. Such a hearing might not result in a lower sentence at all, the court noted. But Gary Greenwald, Williams’ lawyer, said he was optimistic the new sentence would be lower. He noted that a related matter involving another major drug dealer who also had been involved in three homicides resulted in a 20-year sentence. “Our guy wasn’t as bad as that guy and he got life,” said Greenwald. The lawyer said he believed the decision would have far-reaching impact. “We believe on issues of conflict of interest, the court extended rules and it gave some guidance on issues of judicial and prosecutorial conduct.” The government’s case was argued by Joseph M. Guerra, the head of the narcotics and violent crimes division of the Western District U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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