May 1, 2014

Surprise reversal in "killing and culpability" self-defense case

Judge slams defense lawyer as inept, dishonest 

Four years ago, I presented a reader participation exercise, "On Killing and Culpability," featuring the case of a young working-class man who stabbed a drunken Berkeley fraternity man to death during a street brawl. Even though 20-year-old Andrew Hoeft-Edenfield only pulled out a knife after he was surrounded by a large and hostile crowd that was closing in on him, jurors rejected his self-defense claim and found him guilty of second-degree murder. In a case that later garnered national attention as part of the debate over what constitutes self defense, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison. 

Yesterday, a judge pulled no punches in overturning the conviction, which he described as a product of the defense attorney's incompetence and deceit. The ruling came in response to a state Supreme Court mandate that the case be reviewed for possible attorney misconduct.

It turns out that there was a lot more going on behind the scenes of the legal case than the public was privy to at the time.

Attorney Elizabeth Huang demonstrated a "breathtaking level of disingenuousness, evasiveness and apparent dishonesty," wrote Alameda County Superior Court Judge Larry Goodman in his scathing opinion; her lack of qualifications coupled with her "unexplainable arrogance" created "a complex web of deception, misrepresentation, disloyalty, and self-interest."

Huang's son and the defendant were close friends, and Huang accepted the case pro bono. Her ultimate goal, Judge Goodman noted, was to sue the UC Berkeley fraternity system, which she believed was arrogantly undermining the safety and security of Berkeley residents.

She'll get no argument from me on that score. As revealed in a powerful Atlantic expose, tragedies such as this are endemic to the Greek system, which typically escapes culpability for the results of the drunken debauchery that many fraternities promote.

The problem was that her "apparent obsession" with the fraternity system created a profound conflict of interest: If Hoeft-Edenfield admitted culpability by accepting a plea bargain, her chances of a successful lawsuit would be greatly diminished.

Thus, as the judge meticulously delineated in his 56-page opinion, she rejected all efforts to strike a deal, despite her client's wishes to do so and despite a reasonable offer from the prosecution of a 12-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea to manslaughter.

Her missteps were not for lack of good advice.

In remarkable testimony at a four-day evidentiary hearing last month, two defense attorneys and a prominent jury consultant testified that at a strategy session convened by Huang, they correctly forecasted that her client would be convicted if he did not take the witness stand to explain his actions on that fateful night. When Huang responded that Hoeft-Edenfield, a special education student, was too unintelligent and easily led to testify, prominent defense attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach advised her to settle the case. Also present at that meeting were experienced homicide attorney Rebecca Young of the San Francisco Public Defender's Office and a senior litigation consultant, Lois Haney.

Judge Larry Goodman
Instead of following the sage advice of these experienced professionals, Huang -- who had never handled a murder case -- barreled ahead to trial, so confident of Hoeft-Edenfield's vindication that she failed to warn her client of the risks. Instead, "she continued to mislead [him] into thinking that the worst possible consequence of going to trial is that he would get a voluntary manslaughter conviction," even going so far as to send his parents to the jail to talk him into proceeding to trial. 

I've made the opinion available online (HERE). By way of full disclosure, I've known Judge Goodman from way back in my days as a newspaper reporter and have always found him to be a straight shooter.

The Alameda County District Attorney's Office now has 30 days to decide whether to offer Hoeft-Edenfield its original 12-year plea deal; otherwise, the case could proceed to a retrial for second-degree murder. (The jury acquitted the defendant of first-degree murder.) Meanwhile, the State Bar of California will review Judge Goodman's findings to determine whether Huang should face discipline.

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Thanks to Henry Lee of the San Francisco Chronicle for breaking the news. My prior reports on the case include:

(c) Copyright Karen Franklin 2014 - All rights reserved

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