In November 2022, four University of Idaho students — Ethan Chapin, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle, and Kaylee Goncalves — were murdered in their off-campus home in Moscow, Idaho. Law enforcement is charging Washington State University criminology student Bryan Kohberger with four counts of first-degree murder and felony burglary. Pennsylvania authorities arrested the murder suspect and are extraditing him to Idaho. He could face the death penalty for the quadruple homicide.
The court in Idaho appointed Kootenai County Public Defender Anne Taylor to represent Kohberger. But it later turned out that she was already representing Kernodle’s mother, Cara Northington, on unrelated misdemeanor drug charges. So Taylor filed a substitution of counsel and withdrew from Northington’s case and is continuing with the Kohberger case.
For some reason, the media is having a heyday with this. But it’s really much ado about nothing.
What Is a Conflict of Interest?
First some background. Lawyers get their law licenses from the state. Every state has a code of ethical rules that lawyers must follow, or else they can lose their licenses. In Idaho, that code is the Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct.
Rule 1.7 of the Idaho Rules says that a lawyer cannot represent a client if the representation involves a “concurrent conflict of interest.” A concurrent conflict of interest exists if there is a significant risk that the representation of one client will be “materially limited” by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client. The lawyer facing the potential conflict is, in the first instance, the one who decides whether a conflict exists.
Conflicts arise all the time. Every lawyer who represents multiple clients routinely runs what is called a “conflicts check” before they take on a new client. That screens out many potential conflicts, but sometimes conflicts show up later or arise during the course of a representation. If this happens, the lawyer withdraws from the representation of one of the clients (often, but not always, the client who showed up later).
The Sixth Amendment
There’s an added wrinkle in a criminal case. The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to effective assistance of counsel. According to the Supreme Court, this includes the right to a “conflict-free” lawyer. So lawyers in criminal cases have, in addition to an ethical obligation, a legal obligation to avoid conflicts.
This legal obligation makes a big difference. If a party in a civil action loses their case and later discovers that their lawyer had a conflict, they might be able to sue their lawyer for malpractice, but they wouldn’t be able to get the court to throw out the loss. The lawyer, not the other side, would be to blame.
Contrast that with a criminal case. If a defendant in a criminal case is convicted and it turns out their defense attorney had a conflict, they were deprived of their constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. That means that the conviction gets thrown out. The defendant doesn’t walk — they can be tried again with conflict-free counsel — but the original conviction can’t stand.
Murder Cases Require Additional Care
That’s a lot of background, but it explains why the public defender’s office was so careful to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. According to news reports and court records, Northington, the mother of one of the victims, was being represented by the public defender on unrelated charges since September 2022. As a criminal defendant, she’s entitled to conflict-free counsel.
Then Kohberger allegedly murdered her daughter and was appointed the public defender to represent him. This created a potential conflict for Taylor. She had to decide — with the media breathing down her neck in the high-profile slaying — whether she could represent both defendants without materially limiting the representation of either. If she didn’t withdraw, and a court later found there was a conflict, both of the convictions would be reversed. Erring on the side of caution, Taylor chose to withdraw from Northington’s misdemeanor case.
The Public Defender Did the Right Thing
We don’t have a view about whether Taylor was legally or ethically obligated to withdraw from Northington’s representation. But there is nothing unusual, let alone nefarious, about what she did. She concluded that she couldn’t represent the mother of a murder victim and the alleged murderer at the same time, even if the charges had nothing to do with each other. That’s all.
She did this by the book. Good for her.
What Is an Attorney Conflict of Interest? (FindLaw’s Learn About the Law)Sixth Amendment Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel (FindLaw’s U.S. Constitution)Learn More About Homicide Charges (FindLaw’s Learn About the Law)
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