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High court to hear claim over withdrawn guilty plea

People line up for admission at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
People line up for admission at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

By Jonathan Stempel and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Monday to consider whether a lower court erred in throwing out a murder conviction of a transgender man accused of killing his wealthy uncle so he could use money from the estate for a sex-change operation.

Vonlee Titlow claimed his trial lawyer was constitutionally ineffective by giving him bad advice in urging that he withdraw his guilty plea to the lesser charge of manslaughter and go to trial over the August 2000 death of his uncle, Donald Rogers.

Prosecutors said Titlow agreed to help his aunt, Billie Rogers, kill his uncle so she could inherit Donald Rogers' estate and ultimately pass some of the money to him.

The manslaughter plea could have subjected Titlow to a seven- to 15-year prison term, but Titlow was later convicted by an Oakland County, Michigan, state court jury of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison.

On May 22, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction, saying Titlow's trial lawyer did not investigate the case. The court said that had the lawyer done so properly he would, or should, have recommended that Titlow not withdraw his plea.

It cited a 2012 Supreme Court precedent, Lafler v. Cooper, which held that the right of criminal defendants under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to effective assistance of counsel extended to the plea bargaining process.

Nineteen U.S. states supported Michigan's appeal.

Oral argument and a decision are expected in the court's next term, which runs from October 2013 to June 2014.

The case is Burt v. Titlow, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-414.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Howard Goller and Eric Beech)

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