State v. Schowengerdt

State v. Schowengerdt, 2018 MT 7 (Jan. 16, 2018) (Shea, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred in ruling Schowengerdt was not entitled to substitution of counsel, and (2) whether Schowengerdt was denied effective assistance of counsel.

Short Answer: (1) No, and (2) no.


Facts: Schowengerdt killed his wife by repeatedly stabbing her in their home in December 2012. He drove to the police station the next day and confessed in a recorded statement. Schowengerdt’s attorney filed notice in January 2013 that he might assert a defense of justificable use of force. In April 2013, Schowengerdt decided to plead guilty to deliberate homicide. The district court proceeded through a detailed colloquy during which Schowengerdt indicated the plea was knowing and voluntary, he was satisfied with his attorney’s services, and that he could not “handle” a trial. The district court accepted his plea.

In June 2013, Schowengerdt wrote a letter to the district court requesting new counsel. Two days later, his attorney moved to withdraw Schowengerdt’s guilty plea, stating that Schowengerdt made a mistake and now wished to proceed to trial.

The district court held a hearing in July 2013 to address Schowengerdt’s request for new counsel. The district court denied the motion and sentenced Schowengerdt to life in prison. On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the district court failed to adequately inquire into Schowengerdt’s complaints regarding his counsel, and remanded for a proper inquiry. 

Procedural Posture & Holding: On remand, the district court appointed new counsel to represent Schowengerdt during a proceeding to determine whether Schowengerdt’s complaints about his counsel warranted a hearing. Schowengerdt explained his concerns, and his new counsel summarized them. The district court determined the complaints were “seemingly substantial” and allowed Schowengerdt’s original counsel to respond. A month later, the district court again denied Schowengerdt’s motion for substitution of counsel. Schowengerdt appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) The district court followed this Court’s instructions on remand. It asked multiple times whether either party had anything to add and whether they were satisfied with the process. Schowengerdt’s failure to challenge the proceeding bars him from contesting the proceedings on appeal.

(2) Schowengerdt argues that he is entitled to a presumption of prejudice because his counsel violated the duty of loyalty and confidentiality by (1) effectively abandoning Schowengerdt during a critical stage of the proceedings by filing the motion to withdraw the guilty plea and, during the hearing that followed, arguing that there was no law to support the plea withdrawal, and (2) by creating a conflict of interest in continuing representation and disclosing confidential communication. The Supreme Court disagrees with both assertions, and agrees with the district court’s determination that Schowengerdt’s plea was voluntary and knowing. A lack of communication between attorney and client is not on its own a basis for reversal on grounds of ineffective assistance. Moreover, here the record does not show a total breakdown in communication. Although Schowengerdt and his counsel disagreed, counsel attempted to accommodate Schowengerdt’s requests. The record shows an ongoing relationship between counsel and client, and does not support ineffective assistance.