Wargo v. Commissioner of Correction
The habeas petitioner was not deprived of his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel due to an alleged conflict of interest from counsel's representing the petitioner in a civil contingent fee matter against his homeowner's insurance carrier and on criminal charges, when counsel advised the petitioner concerning the risks of pursuing the insurance claim while charged with arson and murder. In connection with a home fire that killed his wife, Lance Wargo was convicted of crimes, including murder and arson in the first degree. The conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. Wargo filed this petition for a writ of habeas corpus and appealed from its denial, contending, first, that the habeas court improperly rejected his claims that his trial counsel, M. Hatcher Norris, was ineffective because he had a conflict of interest in representing him both in a civil contingent fee matter against his homeowner's insurance carrier and on the criminal charges. The Appellate Court affirmed the judgment. Despite the petitioner's claims to the contrary, the habeas court found that Norris had advised the petitioner as to the risks associated with cooperating with the insurance company but that the petitioner insisted on pursuing his claim for the insurance proceeds. The habeas court concluded that, even if a conflict of interest existed, there was no legal basis to suppress a notebook insurance investigators found in a bedroom dresser listing, in the petitioner's handwriting, items including "aceteone," "alcohol clorox," "alm foil," "dry run," "rope kids drs," "oil in can," "rid of stuff," "cigs," and "ldr." The habeas court also found that the petitioner failed to prove that a conflict of interest prevented Norris from effectively engaging in plea negotiations. The court credited Norris' testimony that he conveyed the state's offer of 45 years' incarceration to the petitioner and explained the strength and weaknesses of the state's case. The habeas court found that because the petitioner was resolutely opposed to a plea, Norris reasonably could have done nothing further to induce a plea. The habeas court's factual findings and legal conclusions were found supported by the record. The habeas court did not err in concluding that the petitioner was not deprived of his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel due to the existence of an alleged conflict of interest.