Murder Conviction Affirmed Where Defense Attorney Disclosed Location of the Body with Client’s Consent
In State v. Bonilla, decided December 31, 2019, the SC Court of Appeals affirmed Bonilla’s murder conviction over claims that his attorney disclosed the location of the victims’ body without his informed consent. Although the Court of Appeals noted that this is a claim for PCR and not direct appeal, they analyzed the claim anyway, providing what amounts to an advisory opinion that Bonilla is not entitled to relief on direct appeal or PCR.
Is it reversible error for a defense lawyer to disclose the location of the body in a murder prosecution? Should a client even tell their attorney if they know where a body is?
Should a Defense Attorney Disclose the Location of the Body in a Murder Case?
Of course, it depends on the facts of the case, what the client says about what happened, and the decision is ultimately the client’s to make. Obviously, it is more difficult to prove a murder when there is no body…
On the other hand, disclosure of the location of a body could be useful in negotiations in some cases, or it may provide exculpatory evidence. When should a defense attorney recommend that the client disclose the location of the body?
Bonilla acknowledged at trial that he consented to allow his defense lawyer to disclose the location of the body, but he claimed that his attorney did not explain the consequences of the disclosure to him. His attorney, on the other hand, testified that he discussed the ramifications of disclosure with Bonilla in detail…
Of course, the circuit court and court of appeals found that the attorney’s testimony was more credible than his client’s. (Find me an appellate opinion that says a client’s testimony is more credible than his or her attorney’s. I’ll wait.)
It appears from the appellate opinion that Bonilla told his attorney that the death was an accident. The attorney then pointed out that the best proof that the death was an accident would be to produce the body, at which point an autopsy would show that the death was accidental.
What’s the benefit in disclosing the location of the body?
- The attorney may feel better about doing their civic duty and giving the victim’s family some closure – not a valid reason for a defense lawyer to recommend cooperating and disclosing the location of a body;
- The client may get some benefit in a plea bargain in exchange for disclosing the location of the body and providing closure to the victim’s family – a valid strategy if there is already enough evidence to convict and there is an agreement in place before the disclosure happens; or
- The attorney may believe that the client is telling the truth about the accidental death, in which case the body may be the best evidence in the client’s defense.
At a minimum, the attorney should have discovered that bloodstains were found on the ceiling and wheel well of Bonilla’s work van and that Bonilla had already made multiple inconsistent statements to investigators – if Bonilla provided a reasonable explanation to his attorney along with a credible explanation of how the death was an accident, it may have been reasonable for the defense lawyer to recommend disclosure of the location of the body.
What the attorney could not have known, unless his client told him, is that the police would discover:
- The victim was found nude from the waist down;
- Her shirt was torn;
- Her glasses were found tangled in her hair;
- There was evidence of injury to her vaginal area;
- There was evidence of blunt force trauma to her head; and
- There were fractures in her throat suggesting she was strangled.
If the client is telling their attorney that the death was an accident and an autopsy will prove it, it is difficult to fault the attorney for disclosing the location of the body although it would still be a tough call with the information that should have been available to the attorney before disclosure.
Should a Client Tell Their Attorney the Location of the Body in a Murder Case?
You should always be truthful, honest, and leave out nothing when speaking to your attorney. Are there exceptions to this rule depending on who your attorney is, your relationship with your attorney, or the unique facts of your case? Maybe.
If you are my client, you should leave nothing out and tell me everything. I do not disclose confidential information that my clients provide to me, even when it is painful to safeguard their secrets. If we disclose damaging information to the state, it will only be after full consultation, discussion of the pros and cons, with the informed consent of the client, and because there is some benefit to the client’s case.
If you are not telling your attorney the truth about what happened, you cannot expect them to give you solid advice. Consider – if Bonilla had told his attorney exactly what investigators would find and what most likely happened based on the condition of the body, would his attorney have recommended disclosing the location of the body?
I don’t know, but I think it’s unlikely.
Is a Defense Lawyer Required to Disclose the Location of the Body in a Murder Case?
There is no requirement that an attorney disclose the location of a body or any other evidence that a client discloses to them.
Exactly the opposite – the ethics rules prohibit any disclosure of information received in connection with a client’s case unless the client provides informed consent.
Can a defense lawyer ever disclose confidential information? Rule 1.6 states that an attorney may disclose information when it is necessary:
(1) to prevent the client from committing a criminal act;
(2) to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm;
(3) to prevent the client from committing a crime or fraud that is reasonably certain to result in substantial injury to the financial interests or property of another and in furtherance of which the client has used or is using the lawyer’s services;
(4) to prevent, mitigate or rectify substantial injury to the financial interests or property of another that is reasonably certain to result or has resulted from the client’s commission of a crime or fraud in furtherance of which the client has used the lawyer’s services;
(5) to secure legal advice about the lawyer’s compliance with these Rules;
(6) to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client, to establish a defense to a criminal charge or civil claim against the lawyer based upon conduct in which the client was involved, or to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client;
(7) to comply with other law or a court order; or
(8) to detect and resolve conflicts of interest arising from the lawyer’s change of employment or from changes in the composition or ownership of a firm, but only if the revealed information would not compromise the attorney-client privilege or otherwise prejudice the client.
An attorney can never disclose evidence of a past crime, however. An attorney is not required to disclose the information listed above, although the attorney can choose to without fear of professional discipline if they feel it is appropriate.
Murder Defense Lawyer in Charleston, SC
Grant B. Smaldone is a criminal defense trial lawyer in Charleston, SC who defends state and federal criminal cases in the Eastern SC area.
If you have been charged with a crime in state or federal court in SC, call now at (843) 808-2100 or contact us online to talk to a Charleston, SC criminal defense attorney today.