In a decision handed down on October 20, 2009, State v. Pepin, slip op. October 20, 2009, the New Hampshire Supreme Court refused to close the courthouse doors to prison inmates denied the right to effective assistance of counsel. This ruling ensures that improperly held inmates continue to have access to New Hampshire courts to challenge the effectiveness of representation received from their lawyers. Ineffective assistance of counsel claims remain difficult to litigate, but the court announced that it will not bar such claims.
Jeffrey Pepin was convicted of multiple crimes and sentenced to the New Hampshire State Prison. After his appeal was rejected, he filed a motion for a new trial on the grounds that he was denied his 6th Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. The superior court ruled that his failure to raise certain arguments in his direct appeal prevented him from raising those arguments later in his habeas corpus claim. Relying in part on its decision in State v. Whittaker, 158 N.H. 762 (2009), a case successfully appealed by Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C., the court held that even after an unsuccessful direct appeal, an inmate who was denied effective assistance of counsel may challenge his or her confinement either by filing a motion for a new trial or a habeas corpus petition.
Inmates seeking freedom on claims of ineffective assistance of counsel still face significant obstacles. However, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Pepin case at least means that inmates who received substandard legal representation can have the merits of their cases heard by a judge.