A California federal appeals court denied an inmate’s request for a new trial. The inmate is presently serving a life sentence for murder. The court held he was unable to show that racism by his court-appointed lawyer resulted in a deficient trial performance. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reluctantly ruled against Ezzard Ellis. The panel of three judges held they were bound by 9th Circuit precedent involving the same lawyer who is now deceased, although they all concurred that the decision undercut the right to counsel.

The Case

Ellis was convicted in his fifth trial in 1991 for murder, attempted murder and robbery in relation to a fatal shooting outside of a McDonald’s two years prior. Ellis’s first two trials ended in mistrials due to unavailable witnesses; the third and fourth trials resulted in hung juries. Ellis argued that Ames held deeply racist beliefs about African-Americans as a whole and specifically against Ellis. Ellis was not aware of this until a friend sent him a newspaper article recounting Ames’ daughters testimony about their father’s frequent use of racial slurs regarding his clients. Nonetheless, a 2001 9th Circuit decision — Mayfield v. Woodford — held that the inmate was not entitled to relief unless he could show Ames’ racism resulted in poor trial performance. Pursuing his case pro se, Ellis utilized declarations of Ames’s daughters as well as those from people who worked with him.

Noting he was bound by Mayfield, Ellis had the burden of showing he was either aware of Ames’s racism and it caused a complete breakdown in attorney-client communications or that Ames’s racism adversely affected his performance as counsel. The court found Ellis was unable to prove either. In its concurrence, the court found that with an attorney as deeply racist as Ames, the assumption that he was acting in his client’s best interest was unfounded.


Effective Assistance of Counsel

The effective assistance of counsel is the right of a criminal defendant or appellant to have competent legal representation. This right applies whether the attorney was court appointed or privately retained by the defendant. Generally, competent legal representation is without errors that would result in the denial of a fair trial (i.e., a different outcome at trial). There is a general deference to attorneys’ decisions when it comes to the legal strategy taken on a particular case. For this reason, most attorney errors do not rise to the level of ineffective assistance of counsel.