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Case Basics
Docket No. 
Sherry L. Burt, Warden
Vonlee Nicole Titlow
Decided By 
(Solicitor General, Michigan, for the petitioner)
(Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner)
(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?

Decision: 9 votes for Burt, 0 vote(s) against
Legal provision: ADEPA

No; no; unanswered. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. delivered the opinion for the 9-0 majority. The Supreme Court held that, when a state prisoner asks a federal court to set aside a sentence due to ineffective assistance of counsel, the AEDPA requires the Court of Appeals to apply a “doubly-deferential” standard in which both the state court and the defense attorney are given the benefit of the doubt. Because the state court’s factual determination is assumed to be correct, the state prisoner has the burden to disprove that determination with clear and convincing evidence. In this case, the Court held that there was no convincing evidence that the new counsel’s advice did not stem from the defendant’s continued protestations of innocence. In the absence of such evidence, the new counsel’s advice was reasonable and the defendant could not prove that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.

In her concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the defendant had the burden to prove that the new counsel acted ineffectively and that the state court decided the case incorrectly—both burdens that the defendant did not meet. Justice Sotomayor also emphasized the limited scope of the ruling in this case, which referred only to the facts at hand. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a separate concurring opinion in which she argued that the plea deal became invalid when the defendant refused to testify against her aunt, so the prosecutor could not be directed to renew a plea deal that could no longer exist. Without the existence of a still-possible plea deal, there was no reversible error in the trial.

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BURT v. TITLOW. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 26 August 2015. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2013/2013_12_414>.
BURT v. TITLOW, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2013/2013_12_414 (last visited August 26, 2015).
"BURT v. TITLOW," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 26, 2015, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2013/2013_12_414.