Cuyler v. Sullivan, 78-1832

Decision Date12 May 1980
Docket NumberNo. 78-1832,78-1832
Citation64 L.Ed.2d 333,100 S.Ct. 1708,446 U.S. 335
PartiesJulius T. CUYLER, Superintendent, etc., et al., Petitioners, v. John SULLIVAN
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Two privately retained lawyers represented respondent and two others charged with the same murders. Respondent, who was tried first, made no objection to the multiple representation. The defense rested at the close of the prosecutor's case, and respondent was convicted. The two codefendants later were acquitted at separate trials. Respondent then sought collateral relief under Pennsylvania law, alleging that he had not received effective assistance of counsel because his lawyers represented conflicting interests. After a hearing at which both defense lawyers testified, the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas denied relief. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed, finding no multiple representation and concluding that the decision to rest the defense was a reasonable trial tactic. Respondent next sought habeas corpus relief in Federal District Court, but the court accepted the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's conclusion that respondent's lawyer did not represent the other defendants and further concluded that respondent had adduced no evidence of a conflict of interest. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed. It held that the participation of the two lawyers in all three trials established as a matter of law that both lawyers represented all three defendants, and that the possibility of conflict among the interests represented by these lawyers established a violation of respondent's Sixth Amendment right to counsel.


1. The Court of Appeals did not exceed the proper scope of review when it rejected the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's conclusion that the two lawyers had not undertaken multiple representation. The Pennsylvania court's conclusion was a mixed determination of law and fact not covered by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), which provides that a state court's determination after a hearing on the merits of a factual issue shall be presumed to be correct. Pp. 341-342.

2. A state criminal trial, a proceeding initiated and conducted by the State itself, is an action of the State within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. If a defendant's retained counsel does not provide the adequate legal assistance guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, a serious risk of injustice infects the trial itself. When the State obtains a conviction through such a trial, it is the State that unconstitutionally deprives the defendant of his liberty. Thus, there is no merit to petitioner's claim that failings of retained counsel cannot provide the basis for federal habeas corpus relief. Pp. 342-345.

3. Respondent is not entitled to federal habeas corpus relief upon showing that the state trial court failed to inquire into the potential for conflicts of interest and that his lawyers had a possible conflict of interests. Pp. 345-350.

(a) The Sixth Amendment requires a state trial court to investigate timely objections to multiple representation. But unless the state trial court knows or reasonably should know that a particular conflict exists, the court itself need not initiate an inquiry into the propriety of multiple representation. Under the circumstances of this case, the Sixth Amendment imposed upon the trial court no affirmative duty to inquire. Pp. 345-348.

(b) Unless the trial court fails to afford a defendant who objects to multiple representation an opportunity to show that potential conflicts impermissibly imperil his right to a fair trial, a reviewing court cannot presume that the possibility for conflict resulted in ineffective assistance of counsel. In such a case, a defendant must demonstrate that an actual conflict of interest adversely affected the adequacy of his representation. Pp. 348-350.

(c) The possibility of a conflict of interest is insufficient to impugn a criminal conviction. In order to establish a violation of the Sixth Amendment, a defendant must show that an actual conflict of interest adversely affected his lawyer's performance. P. 350.

593 F.2d 512, vacated and remanded.

Steven H. Goldblatt, Philadelphia, Pa., for petitioners.

Marilyn J. Gelb, Philadelphia, Pa., for respondent.

Mr. Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether a state prisoner may obtain a federal writ of habeas corpus by showing that his retained defense counsel represented potentially conflicting interests.


Respondent John Sullivan was indicted with Gregory Carchidi and Anthony DiPasquale for the first-degree murders of John Gorey and Rita Janda. The victims, a labor official and his companion, were shot to death in Gorey's second-story office at the Philadelphia headquarters of Teamsters' Local 107. Francis McGrath, a janitor, saw the three defendants in the building just before the shooting. They appeared to be awaiting someone, and they encouraged McGrath to do his work on another day. McGrath ignored their suggestions. Shortly afterward, Gorey arrived and went to his office. McGrath then heard what sounded like firecrackers exploding in rapid succession. Carchidi, who was in the room where McGrath was working, abruptly directed McGrath to leave the building and to say nothing. McGrath hastily complied. When he returned to the building about 15 minutes later, the defendants were gone. The victims' bodies were discovered the next morning.

Two privately retained lawyers, G. Fred DiBona and A. Charles Peruto, represented all three defendants throughout the state proceedings that followed the indictment. Sullivan had different counsel at the medical examiner's inquest, but he thereafter accepted representation from the two lawyers retained by his codefendants because he could not afford to pay his own lawyer.1 At no time did Sullivan or his lawyers object to the multiple representation. Sullivan was the first defendant to come to trial. The evidence against him was entirely circumstantial, consisting primarily of McGrath's testimony. At the close of the Commonwealth's case, the defense rested without presenting any evidence. The jury found Sullivan guilty and fixed his penalty at life imprisonment. Sullivan's post-trial motions failed, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed his conviction by an equally divided vote. Commonwealth v. Sullivan, 446 Pa. 419, 286 A.2d 898 (1971).2 Sullivan's codefendants, Carchidi and DiPasquale, were acquitted at separate trials.

Sullivan then petitioned for collateral relief under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Hearing Act, Pa.Stat.Ann., Tit. 19, § 1180-1 et seq. (Purdon Supp.1979-1980). He alleged, among other claims, that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel because his defense lawyers represented conflicting interests. In five days of hearings, the Court of Common Pleas heard evidence from Sullivan, Carchidi, Sullivan's lawyers, and the judge who presided at Sullivan's trial.

DiBona and Peruto had different recollections of their roles at the trials of the three defendants. DiBona testified that he and Peruto had been "associate counsel" at each trial. App. 32a. Peruto recalled that he had been chief counsel for Carchidi and DePasquale, but that he merely had assisted DiBona in Sullivan's trial. DiBona and Peruto also gave conflicting accounts of the decision to rest Sullivan's defense. DiBona said he had encouraged Sullivan to testify even though the Commonwealth had presented a very weak case. Peruto remembered that he had not "want[ed] the defense to go on because I thought we would only be exposing [defense] witnesses for the other two trials that were coming up." Id., at 57a. Sullivan testified that he had deferred to his lawyers' decision not to present evidence for the defense. But other testimony suggested that Sullivan preferred not to take the stand because cross-examination might have disclosed an extramarital affair. Finally, Carchidi claimed he would have appeared at Sullivan's trial to rebut McGrath's testimony about Carchidi's statement at the time of the murders.

The Court of Common Pleas held that Sullivan could take a second direct appeal because counsel had not assisted him adequately in his first appeal. App. to Pet. for Cert. 5F. The court did not pass directly on the claim that defense counsel had a conflict of interest, but it found that counsel fully advised Sullivan about his decision not to testify. Id., at 7F. All other claims for collateral relief were rejected or reserved for consideration in the new appeal.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed both Sullivan's original conviction and the denial of collateral relief. Commonwealth v. Sullivan, 472 Pa. 129, 371 A.2d 468 (1977). The court saw no basis for Sullivan's claim that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel at trial. It found that Peruto merely assisted DiBona in the Sullivan trial and that DiBona merely assisted Peruto in the trials of the other two defendants. Thus, the court concluded, there was "no dual representation in the true sense of the term." Id., at 161, 371 A.2d, at 483. The court also found that resting the defense was a reasonable tactic which had not denied Sullivan the effective assistance of counsel. Id., at 162, 371 A.2d, at 483-484.

Having exhausted his state remedies, Sullivan sought habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The petition was referred to a Magistrate, who found that Sullivan's defense counsel had represented conflicting interests. The District Court, however, accepted the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's conclusion that there had been no multiple representation. The court also found that, assuming there had been multiple representation, the evidence adduced in the state post conviction proceeding revealed no conflict of interest. App. to Pet. for Cert. 5C-8C.

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed. United States ex rel. Sullivan...

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