April 21, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Potential Conflict of Interest Relevant in Determination of Prejudice to Defendant

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Villanueva on Thursday, May 5, 2016.

Benjamin Garcia-Diaz’s wife called the police for a domestic violence incident, and authorized a search of the residence. Police found $30,000 worth of cocaine during the search. Garcia-Diaz retained Charles Elliot to defend the domestic violence charges, and although the prosecution moved to add drug charges, the motion was still pending when Garcia-Diaz disappeared in March 2005. His body was found in September 2005, and Martin Villanueva was arrested for the murder.

Villanueva retained Elliot, who had represented him in the past. Elliot advised Villanueva that the prosecution might seek to disqualify him because of his prior representation with Garcia-Diaz, and later Elliot entered into an agreement with the prosecution where neither party would mention his prior representation of Garcia-Diaz. The trial court was never told about the conflict of interest.

At trial in 2006, the prosecution’s theory of the case was that Garcia-Diaz was about to enter into an agreement with the prosecution and would have laid the blame on Villanueva, his supplier, so Villanueva shot him at a crucial time. In fact, as Elliot knew, Garcia-Diaz had not negotiated at all with the prosecution and was not preparing to blame Villanueva, but because of his agreement Elliot could not rebut the prosecution’s theory.

Villanueva was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. He then filed a Crim. P. 35(c) motion alleging that Elliot’s performance was deficient because he had a conflict of interest that adversely affected his trial performance. The district court denied the postconviction motion.

On appeal, the court of appeals evaluated Villanueva’s claims under the framework set forth in West v. People, 2015 CO 5, which clarified the correct standard for evaluating conflict of interest claims. Under West, to show an adverse effect from a conflict of interest, the defendant must identify a plausible defense or strategy, show that the alternative strategy was objectively reasonable, and establish that counsel’s failure to pursue the alternative strategy was linked to the conflict. Villanueva contended that Elliot was ineffective for failing to rebut the prosecution’s theory of the case. The trial court determined that because Villanueva showed only a potential conflict, not an actual conflict, his argument failed. However, under West, Villanueva needed only to show a potential conflict.

The court of appeals remanded for the district court to consider whether Elliot’s duties to Garcia-Diaz were inherently in conflict with Villanueva’s suggested alternative strategy of rebutting the prosecution’s evidence regarding whether Garcia-Diaz was about to snitch on Villanueva.

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