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U.S. Supreme Court restores sentence in vodka killing

WASHINGTON, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday unanimously restored the prison sentence of a Michigan resident convicted of helping to kill a wealthy uncle.

The high court said Vonlee Titlow and an aunt killed her uncle "by pouring vodka down his throat and smothering him with a pillow" in 2000. Contitutioncenter.org said Titlow is a man living as a woman.

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Titlow's attorney negotiated a plea agreement in which she would plead guilty to manslaughter in exchange for testifying against her aunt. But three days before trial, Titlow's new attorney demanded to renegotiate, based on her protestations of innocence.

Instead, prosecutors took Titlow to trial and she was convicted of second-degree murder, receiving a sentence of 20 to 40 years. Without Titlow's testimony, the aunt was acquitted.

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The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected Titlow's claim of ineffective counsel, and a federal judge agreed, using the principles in the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The U.S. judge, on constitutional review, said the state court's ruling was "reasonable."

However, a federal appeals court reversed, finding that the state court's ruling was an unreasonable interpretation of the factual record.

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In turn, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the appeals court. Writing for the whole court, Justice Samuel Alito said the appeals court "failed to apply the 'doubly deferential' standard of review recognized by the [Supreme] Court's case law when it refused to credit the state court's reasonable factual finding and assumed that counsel was ineffective where the record was silent."

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Two of the justices agreed with the judgment, writing separate concurring opinions, and the rest joined Alito's opinion.

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