New Hampshire v. FitzgeraldAnnotate this Case
Defendant Keith Fitzgerald appealed a superior court order denying his motion for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel. In December 2015, defendant was indicted on five counts of theft by unauthorized taking. Defense counsel, whose assistance is alleged to have been ineffective, was retained by defendant in March 2016, after defendant’s prior counsel withdrew. Defense counsel, defendant, and the prosecutor engaged in several plea discussions leading up to trial. Plea negotiations ultimately failed and the case went to trial. The jury heard testimony from the defendant that his father authorized the transactions. On cross-examination however, the State elicited a number of admissions from defendant, which defense counsel did not anticipate, that severely damaged defendant’s credibility and undercut his defense. The jury returned verdicts of guilty on all five counts of theft by unauthorized taking. Ultimately, the court sentenced defendant to a term of not less than nine and one-half years and not more than 25 years in the New Hampshire State Prison. After an evidentiary hearing on defendant's new trial motion, the court ruled that defendant failed to sustain his burden of showing that the outcome of his case would have been different but for his counsel’s performance. On appeal, defendant argued the trial court erred by concluding that, even if defense counsel rendered ineffective assistance, defendant was not prejudiced by: (1) defense counsel’s failure to adequately advise defendant regarding the merits of the State’s plea offer; or (2) counsel’s failure either to object to the trial court’s jury instructions on a sentence enhancement provision on the basis that it had not been presented to the grand jury for indictment, or to move for dismissal of the indictment on that same basis. The New Hampshire Supreme Court determined defense counsel did not adequately advise defendant about a sentence enhancement and the merits of the State's plea offer relative to defendant's likelihood of success at trial, and but for counsel's deficient performance, there was a reasonable probability that defendant would have accepted the State's plea offer. The Court therefore affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings.