On October 6, 2014, the New Jersey Supreme Court found a criminal-defense lawyer to be ineffective because he failed to keep informed about changes in the law applicable to a case he had argued eight days earlier. See New Jersey v. O’Neil, No. A-68 September Term 2012, 072072, 2014 BL 277636 (N.J. Oct. 06, 2014). At trial, the defendant was charged with committing murder. He claimed the shooting was justified in self-defense. The district court charged the jury that self-defense was a justification for committing murder, but that the defense did not apply to lesser-included offenses, including manslaughter. The defendant was convicted of manslaughter and a weapons charge.
On appeal, appellate counsel did not challenge the trial court’s self-defense charge. Eight days after the case was argued and submitted, however, another panel of the court held that self-defense was applicable to both a charge of manslaughter and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. The change went unnoticed by appellate counsel, and the defendant’s conviction and sentence were affirmed.
In O’Neil, the New Jersey Supreme Court found appellate counsel’s representation to be “ineffective” under the Sixth Amendment, and vacated the defendant’s manslaughter conviction. Said the court:
“[O]nce a change — particularly an important and relevant change — does come about,” counsel is expected to be aware of it. . . . If every person is presumed to know the law, no exception can be made for appellate counsel.