Nelson v. AlaskaAnnotate this Case
In 2011 Justin Nelson was indicted on three felony counts of sexual abuse of a minor. He was initially represented by two attorneys from the Dillingham office of the Alaska Public Defender Agency. On the day of sentencing, and represented by a third public defender, Nelson moved to withdraw his plea, arguing that he had not understood the terms of the agreement and had received ineffective assistance of counsel. The superior court declined to appoint a different lawyer to represent him on the motion to withdraw his plea and denied the motion. When the superior court held the sentencing hearing the following week, Nelson told the court he had been expecting his third attorney to visit him because he had “some things that [he] needed for [the attorney] to say”; he also complained that he had not seen any discovery, transcripts, or other documents related to his case. He said, “[T]he reason I took a deal is because of ineffective assistance, and the reason why I took it back is because of ineffective assistance.” The court explained, however, that it had gone back over the record of the plea agreement and remained unconvinced that there was any reason to allow the plea’s withdrawal. And the attorney reiterated his view that a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel should have been “litigated in post-conviction relief.” The court proceeded with sentencing over Nelson’s continued objections, finding that, while “the appointment of conflict counsel will often be the appropriate action in these circumstances, particularly because a different standard applies to a presentencing motion to withdraw a plea as opposed to a post-sentencing motion to withdraw a plea,” deference to the superior court’s discretion was appropriate given Nelson’s inability “to articulate or substantiate any specific assertions of how he had been incompetently represented” and the fact that sentencing “had already been delayed multiple times.” The Alaska Supreme Court held a public defender had a conflict of interest when the petitioner raises a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel against another public defender in the same office. The appellate court's judgment was reversed and the matter remanded to the trial court for appointment of conflict counsel and reconsideration of Nelson's motion for withdrawal of his plea.