Joint Representation of Criminal Defendants in New York
In People v. Gomberg, 38 N.Y.2d 307, 342 N.E.2d 550, 379 N.Y.S.2d 769 (1975), defendants allegedly owned a massage parlor in New York City.
The alleged partners were charged with setting fire to competing massage parlors in an attempt to sabotage competitors. Id. The key witnesses against defendants were employees and an owner of a competing parlor. Id.
The witness employees were paid accomplices who set the fires. Id. The owner of the competing business testified that the defendants threatened him that they would set fire to his business if he did not raise prices. Id. This corroborated the testimony of the three witnesses. Id.
The main issue in Gomberg arose from the fact that the three defendants were represented by the same attorney. Id. at 311.
Furthermore, another attorney from the same law firm represented two of the accomplices, who gave incriminating testimony against the defendants. Id.
The Court in Gomberg held that joint representation of defendants is not a denial of the effective assistance of counsel per se. Id. at 312. Conflict only exists when individual defenses "run afoul of each other." Id., citing to People v. Gonzalez, 30 N.Y.2d 28, 34, 280 N.E.2d 882, 330 N.Y.S.2d 54 (1972).
Once a conflict is definitively established, courts will enter into calculations as to the amount of prejudice emanating from the conflict. Id. While engaged in this process, courts must be mindful that an important aspect of the right to counsel is the obligation of the courts to respect a selection of counsel made by defendant. Id. Such a choice of counsel should not be interfered with. Id.
Since the rights to effective assistance of counsel and retention of counsel of one's choice often clash when a retained attorney is involved in what appears to be a conflict of interest, a trial judge has a strong duty to protect the right to effective assistance of counsel for the accused. Id. at 313.
However, it is important that the court refrain from arbitrarily interfering with the attorney-client relationship. Id.
It is imperative, however, that courts recognize that a defendant may not always perceive the existence of a conflict of interest in joint representation by an attorney. Id.
Therefore, the Court needs to be satisfied that, where there is joint representation, the defendant's decision to proceed with his attorney is a properly informed one. Id.
The Court is permitted to inquire as to whether counsel himself has perceived the conflict and adequately informed his client of the risks involved. Id.
Again, however, a court must not pursue its inquiry too far, so as to interfere with a defendant's right to retained counsel of his choice or to intrude upon confidential attorney-client communications. Id.