In Missouri, there’s no clear avenue for detained juveniles to claim ineffective assistance of counsel — but they might have one soon, thanks to a case heard by the Missouri Supreme Court on April 23.

With every judge asking at least one question in a hearing that spilled beyond the typical 30 minutes, an engaged court grappled with whether this case compels them to set up a new legal mechanism for such claims — and if so, what it should look like.

The case arose at Hayti High School in the Missouri Bootheel. A 16-year-old referred to in court records as “Chris” transferred there from a different school, where he had been suspended for threatening a teacher and a fellow student.

Within his first week at Hayti, according to testimony from other students described in the pleadings, Chris wondered aloud on the bus how it would feel to shoot somebody. Later in the cafeteria, he said he might blow up the school the next day because there were “too many black people.”

Once school officials became aware of these comments, Chris was transported to the Pemiscot County Juvenile Office and detained. Twelve days later, Chris had an adjudication hearing. He denied making any threats. During his testimony, his counsel — who had been representing Chris for only eight days — realized there were two potentially exculpatory witnesses. They had told police they had been near Chris in the cafeteria and did not hear him make threats.

Chris’ defense counsel asked for a continuance. The juvenile office objected that the defense could’ve simply read the police reports, which named the witnesses.

The court denied the continuance, and in the end, found Chris guilty of the delinquency offense of making a terrorist threat in the second degree. The court committed him indefinitely to the Division of Youth Services.

Chris appealed, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. He now awaits a decision from the Supreme Court.

At oral argument, the parties agreed that juveniles have the right to effective counsel. They differed, however, on the proper remedy for when that right is violated.

While adults must wait until after direct appeal to make an ineffective-assistance claim, juvenile cases have a special urgency, argued Chris’ public defender, Craig A. Johnston.

If ineffective assistance is obvious from the record in a juvenile case, Johnston said, a second, conflict-free attorney should be allowed to make that argument on direct appeal. (This second counsel may need to have been appointed ahead of time, Johnston said, and be ready to make the call.)

Yet if evidence of ineffective assistance lies outside the record — for example, if the second counsel discovers that the first had failed to investigate or call exculpatory witnesses — the new counsel could file a motion to remand to the trial court for a hearing on the issue.

At that point, Johnston said, the best yardstick for judging effective assistance is that established in Strickland v. Washington, a 1984 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that a criminal defendant must show by a preponderance of evidence that his or her counsel failed to exercise the level of skill and diligence that a reasonably competent counsel would in a similar situation, and that he or she was prejudiced by that failure. The advantage of the Strickland standard, Johnston said, is that the courts already know it well.​​

Assistant Attorney General Christopher R. Wray disagreed. If indeed the court allows these claims on direct appeal, he said, the better yardstick would be the “meaningful hearing” standard. That standard, used only in Missouri and in cases involving the termination of parental rights, probes whether the attorney was effective in providing his or her client with a meaningful hearing based on the record. It’s designed, Wray argued, for direct appeal.

Wray said he feared that if the high court allowed juveniles to bring ineffective-assistance claims on direct appeal, “appeals will become far more frequent than they are now.”

“We don’t want to clog up the courts,” Wray said.

Yet Chief Justice Zel M. Fischer appeared to dismiss that concern. Fischer elicited responses from Wray to establish that many juvenile cases get transferred to adult criminal court, and many of those that remain end in plea agreements.

“Hence the reason why we see very few of these cases now, as opposed to your thought that there’s rampant ineffective assistance,” Fischer said.

(Earlier in the hearing, Johnston had made exactly that point, saying: “It’s a rare case we’re going to have an ineffective [assistance of counsel] claim, and an even rarer case where the record reflects it.”)

Wray also suggested an entirely different remedy available to juveniles: habeas corpus.

Yet Judge Laura Denvir Stith, who asked the most questions of any other judge, suggested that in almost every case, the

habeas process for a juvenile would last so long as to become moot because he or she would “age out” by turning 18.​​

“Respectfully, I disagree,” Wray responded.

Stith then joked: “Maybe you’re more optimistic about our timeline for deciding cases.”

The case is In the Interest of D.C.M. v. Juvenile Office, SC97595.

By Nicholas Phillips | Missouri Lawyers Weekly