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Idaho Supreme Court Vacates Conviction After D.A. Seizes Jailed Defendant’s Legal Notes

by Matt Clarke 

On November 30, 2018, in a substitute opinion, the Supreme Court of Idaho held that a trial court erred when it required a defendant to show he was prejudiced when the prosecution introduced evidence obtained from the seizure of notes from the defendant’s jail cell that were made at the direction of his attorney and in anticipation of an attorney-client meeting. The Court also held that the entirety of an incriminating letter from a co-defendant could not be introduced into evidence. 

While Anthony J. Robins, Jr. was held at the Ada County jail awaiting trial for aiding and abetting two first-degree murders and an attempted murder, his co-defendant, John Douglas, sent him a letter seeking to coordinate their stories in order to absolve Robins of guilt. The correspondence was intercepted by another prisoner, who provided it to his attorney and told him to use it to get a good plea deal. The prosecutor’s reaction, when informed of the letter’s existence, was to instruct the sheriff to search the cells of Douglas, Robins and the other prisoner, with the intent of finding it. During the search, deputies seized six pages of handwritten notes made by Robins at the behest of his defense attorney, Scott McKay.

McKay had sent discovery files to Robins and asked him to make notes and identify matters of discussion to be used at a future attorney-client meeting. Robins did so and those notes, which were not marked as privileged attorney-client communications, were seized by the deputies and provided to the prosecutor, Shelly Akamatsu. 

Akamatsu reviewed the notes, realized they were intended for McKay and faxed him a copy. McKay then filed a motion to dismiss the charges or, in the alternative, to recuse the D.A.’s office due to the breach of attorney-client privilege. The court held during trial that Robins had the burden of showing he had been prejudiced by the seizure of the notes; the court also denied a motion to sever his co-defendant Douglas from the case. The incriminating letter from Douglas was introduced at trial over Robins’ objections; he was convicted and sentenced to two concurrent life sentences plus 15 years. 

With the assistance of Boise attorney Dennis Benjamin, Robins appealed. 

In a lengthy ruling, the Idaho Supreme Court agreed with the trial court’s determination that the notes were privileged. However, it disagreed with that court’s remedy. Once Robins had made a prima facie case that the government had affirmatively intruded into the attorney-client relationship, the burden shifted to the prosecutor to show there was no prejudice to Robins, such as by proving she had an independent origin for the evidence and argument used at trial.

“This case suffered from an improper pretrial remedy,” the Supreme Court wrote. “It bears emphasizing that the impropriety of that remedy cut both ways. By not shifting the burden to the State, the district court failed to recognize the violation of Robins’s constitutional right to counsel as defined by the presumption of prejudice we have found he established. Yet, by not shifting the burden, the remedy also denied the State its chance to prove that such a violation did not in fact occur.”

Although the prosecutor claimed she had an independent origin, she was never required to prove it at trial. Therefore, Robins’ conviction was vacated and the case remanded for the lower court to hold an evidentiary hearing as to prejudice resulting from the review of Robins’ notes by the prosecution. 

Although the issue of severing Robins’ case from his co-defendant was mooted by the reversal of the conviction, the Supreme Court found that under the rules of evidence, the entirety of the letter from Douglas could not be admitted against Robins because the only part that qualified for an exception to the hearsay exclusion was Douglas’ admission he had “bodyed [sic] them 2 dudes,” referring to a double homicide. See: State v. Robins, 431 P.3d 260 (Idaho 2018). 

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Related legal case

State v. Robins