Burt v. Titlow

PETITIONER: Sherry L. Burt, Warden
RESPONDENT: Vonlee Nicole Titlow
LOCATION: Donald Rogers' Residence

DOCKET NO.: 12-414
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)

CITATION: 571 US (2013)
GRANTED: Feb 25, 2013
ARGUED: Oct 08, 2013
DECIDED: Nov 05, 2013

Ann O'Connell - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
John J. Bursch - Solicitor General, Michigan, for the petitioner
Valerie R. Newman - for the respondent

Facts of the case

In August 2000, Vonlee Nicole Titlow helped his aunt Billie Rogers murder his wealthy uncle Donald Rogers. After Titlow was charged with first-degree murder, the prosecution offered him a plea bargain. In exchange for testifying against Billie Rogers, Titlow could plead guilty to manslaughter and receive a reduced sentence. After consulting with his attorney, Titlow accepted the deal. However, before sentencing, Titlow spoke to a sheriff's deputy who suggested that he withdraw his guilty plea and consult another attorney. Titlow followed the deputy's advice, hired a new attorney and withdrew his guilty plea.

Following his trial, a jury convicted Titlow of second-degree murder and sentenced him to 20-to-40 years in prison. This led Titlow to accuse his second attorney of ineffective assistance of counsel for allowing him to withdraw the original guilty plea. Both the trial court and the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected Titlow's claim. Titlow petitioned the Michigan Supreme Court to hear his case, but they refused to do so.

Titlow then petitioned for federal habeas corpus relief, but the district court denied his claim as well. The district court held that Titlow failed to meet the standard for overturning a state-court conviction under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"). The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court's decision and ordered the state to reoffer Titlow's original plea agreement. The appellate court held that Titlow's second attorney was ineffective for failing to investigate his claims further, failing to obtain documents from the first attorney, and failing to convince Titlow to take the plea bargain.


1. Did the Sixth Circuit give appropriate deference to the Michigan trial court under the AEDPA?

2. Can a defendant establish prejudice in an ineffective assistance claim by presenting subjective testimony that he would have accepted the plea offer absent the attorney's deficient advice?

3. Does the Court's decision in Lafler v. Cooper require a state trial court to resentence a defendant when he claims that ineffective assistance of counsel led him to reject a plea offer?

Media for Burt v. Titlow

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 08, 2013 in Burt v. Titlow

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - November 05, 2013 in Burt v. Titlow

Justice Alito has our first opinion this year in case 12-414, Burt v. Titlow.

I do if I can find that protection aspect.

Off to a spectacular start.

Excuse me, Chief.

Thank you.

It's hat off the presses [Laughter].

All right, the respondent in case was charged in a Michigan Court with murder.

Respondent initially agreed to a favorable plea bargain that required respondent to testify against another defendant, but respondent subsequently changed attorneys, pled not guilty, was tried and convicted and then received a more severe sentence.

Respondent claimed that the second attorney provided ineffective assistance, but the State Court found that the change of attorneys was set in motion by respondent's claim of innocence and held that the attorney's assistance was not ineffective.

Respondent challenged this holding in a federal habeas proceeding and the Sixth Circuit rejected the state court's factual finding and ordered the state to re-offer the original plea bargain.

We now reverse that decision.

We hold that the state court's decision was not unreasonable under the federal habeas statute.

The state court reasonably found that counsel did not act ineffectively given the circumstances confronting him.

More importantly, because the burden of proving ineffective assistance rest squarely on the defendant, a lack of evidence as to counsel's performance cannot support a finding of ineffectiveness.

Respondent failed to meet that burden here.

Justice Sotomayor has filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Ginsburg has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.