What began as a high school bomb-threat case in Missouri’s Bootheel has led to the Supreme Court’s creation on Aug. 13 of a mechanism by which juveniles can claim ineffective assistance of counsel.
In the case of D.C.M., a minor accused of threatening to blow up Hayti High School, no one disputed whether juvenile defendants have the right to an effective attorney. The dispute centered on what to do when a juvenile claimed, as D.C.M. did, that his or her attorney was ineffective. No statute, court rule or precedent had outlined a remedy.
On Aug. 13, a majority of the high court decided D.C.M.’s case by creating a de facto solution: If the record is sufficient, they ruled, a juvenile’s ineffective assistance claim may be heard on direct appeal, and if not, the case may be remanded for an evidentiary hearing.
Judge Mary R. Russell authored the opinion, with Chief Justice George W. Draper III, Judge Patricia Breckenridge and Judge Laura Denvir Stith concurring. The majority concluded that in D.C.M.’s particular situation, the record was insufficient to determine ineffective assistance, so the judges remanded the case to Pemiscot County Circuit Court.
Judge W. Brent Powell concurred with the majority on most of its points, but he lodged a narrow dissent. He argued that the record makes clear D.C.M. did not receive ineffective assistance, so his case should not be remanded for an evidentiary hearing.
Another question of first impression in this case was whether the court should consider moot any appeal by a juvenile who, like D.C.M., already has been released from custody. Under Missouri precedent, the court may rule on a case that ordinarily would be moot if “the issue raised is one of general public interest and importance, recurring in nature, and will otherwise evade appellate review.”
The majority found that D.C.M.’s case fell under this exception. If D.C.M. is tried in the future for a criminal offense, the judges argued, evidence of this case could be introduced.
“D.C.M. should be given the opportunity to remove the discredit and stigma association with his record of adjudication,” the majority wrote.
In a separate opinion, Judge Zel M. Fischer disagreed, writing that while D.C.M. may have “an individual interest” in a resolution, that doesn’t rise to “general public interest,” so his appeal should be dismissed.
The pleadings contain no firm dates on the underlying incident but describe it as follows. Within a week of transferring to Hayti, D.C.M. wondered aloud on the bus how it would feel to shoot somebody, according to student testimony. 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, D.C.M. was transported to the Pemiscot County Juvenile Office and detained.
Twelve days later, D.C.M. had an adjudication hearing. He denied making threats. During his testimony, his counsel — who had been representing D.C.M. for only eight days — realized there were two potentially exculpatory witnesses. They had told police they had been near D.C.M. in the cafeteria and did not hear him make threats. D.C.M.’s 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 D.C.M. guilty of an offense that, if committed by an adult, would amount to making a terrorist threat in the second degree. The court committed him indefinitely to the Division of Youth Services. D.C.M. then claimed ineffective assistance.
The majority found D.C.M.’s claim impossible to adjudge from the facts on the record, so they sent the case back to Pemiscot County but without instructions on which standard to use.
At oral argument, D.C.M.’s attorney had urged the use of the standard 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 first, his or her counsel failed to exercise the level of skill and diligence that a reasonably competent counsel would in a similar situation, and second, that prejudice resulted.
The state argued that the better yardstick would be the “meaningful hearing” standard used in Missouri for cases involving the termination of parental rights.
In the end, the majority chose neither, concluding: “Because the record is insufficient to address D.C.M’s claims on appeal, the standard need not be determined by the court today.”
Powell agreed with that conclusion but went further. He found that based on the factual record, D.C.M. can’t prevail under either standard, so the circuit court’s judgement should be affirmed and the case not remanded.
The case is In the Interest of D.C.M. v. Juvenile Office, SC97595.
By: Nicholas Phillips | Missouri Lawyers Weekly molawyersweekly.com