Burt v. Titlow: Everything You Need to Know About the Murder Case That Went to the Supreme Court


The Supreme Court resumed its duties on Monday, beginning a new session that will be remembered for starting during the current government shutdown. Thankfully, the Court is upholding its constitutional duties and beginning its judicial season on time. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for all branches of government.

One case of note this session is Burt v. Titlow, a murder case that could set an interesting precedent for defendants who receive questionable advice from their lawyers. In August 2000, Vonlee Nicole Titlow assisted his aunt Billie in the murder his uncle Donald Rogers. Titlow took $100,000 in gifts and cash from the estate in exchange for keeping quiet about the murder. After being charged with first-degree murder, Titlow's lawyer negotiated a plea deal that would give him seven to 15 years in prison for manslaughter if he testified against Billie. Titlow accepted the deal, but before sentencing, a sheriff's deputy suggested he withdraw his plea and consult another attorney. He followed the advice, hired a new attorney, and withdrew the former plea. After going to trial with his new attorney, Titlow was convicted of second-degree murder and given a much stricter sentence of 20-40 years in prison.

Titlow accused his second attorney of "ineffective assistance of counsel" for letting him withdraw his first guilty plea. The original trial court and the court of appeals refused the claim. Titlow then petitioned the Michigan Supreme Court to hear his case, in which it was also denied. The district court ruled that Titlow's case failed to meet the standard for overturning under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). The AEDPA, passed in 1996 with overwhelming bipartisan support, makes it difficult for federal judges to grant relief unless the state court's decision resulted in a ruling that involved a perverse application of federal law, or was based on "an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding."

For legal wonks, the questions before the Court in this case are threefold. First, did the circuit court give appropriate deference to the Michigan trial court under the AEDPA? Second, can a defendant establish prejudice in an ineffective assistance claim by showing testimony that he would have accepted the plea offer absent the attorney's poor advice? Third, does the Court's decision in Lafler v. Cooper, a previous case, require a state trial court to resentence the defendant when they claim that ineffective assistance of counsel caused them to reject a plea offer?

Opening arguments for the case began Tuesday, and SCOTUSBLOG has the case's particulars here.