Ineffective Counsel

Sylvia has worked with multiple lawyers on her trial, appeals, and petitions under the Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). Under her initial trial counsel, Michael Wallace—who she later filed multiple, denied PCRAs for ineffective trial counsel against—Sylvia lost her rights to appeal her case in the Superior Court and Supreme Court of Pennsylvania because Wallace failed to file paperwork on time. After her appellate rights were eventually reinstated, her case when then handed off to James Bruno, Esquire for her appeal in the Pennsylvania Superior Court and a petition for Allowance of Appeal in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Though an appeal in the Pennsylvania Superior Court was effective for her released codefendant, Lamont Blagman, both of Sylvia’s were denied under James Bruno.

James Bruno was recently suspended from the practice of law in 2013 after years of violating various Rules of Professional Conduct. These violations began to have consequences through Informal Admonitions in 1998, while Bruno was representing Sylvia; she notes they existed throughout their professional relationship. Bruno learned in 2011 that he had both ADHD and Dysthymic Disorder that had gone undiagnosed for years but was shown to have been impacting his work for years. Before diagnosis and medication, he was attempting to cope by over-focusing on certain cases and certain aspects of those cases, while filtering everything else—other clients and most of his paperwork—out. His home office was a “disaster,” and he was working about 14 hours a day/seven days a week. His attempts to cope without an official diagnosis or treatment plan negatively impacted his clients; though only eleven of them came forward, many more were impacted over the course of 15+ years ( Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. James S. Bruno No. 180 DB 2011).

Sylvia’s right to adequate representation was impacted by James Bruno’s undiagnosed mental illnesses. While being ineffectively represented by James Bruno, Sylvia’s appeals in the state of Pennsylvania were exhausted. This significantly limited her legal options for relief moving forward. Because James Bruno failed to do so, Sylvia is now unable to present a viable claim of ineffective assistance against Michael Wallace, who continued to change strategies during trial without informing Sylvia. He switched strategies and decided to rest most of his case on a letter that was deemed hearsay and thus inadmissible in court. This confused the jury and made for an inconsistent testimony. In addition, Michael Wallace failed to object to prosecutorial misconduct in the trial.

Over the past 27 years, she has not received adequate communication from almost all of her court-appointed lawyers. The overwhelmed and underfunded system of public defense uniquely burdens low-income individuals like Sylvia. As a result, her legal strategies tend to rely on her own limited legal knowledge and minimal access to the outdated prison law library.