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Watts v. Ballard

Supreme Court of West Virginia

April 7, 2017

JACK R. WATTS, Petitioner Below, Petitioner
v.
DAVID BALLARD, Warden, Respondent Below, Respondent

          Submitted: March 7, 2017.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Ohio County Honorable James P. Mazzone, Judge Civil Action No. 13-C-230

          Scott E. Johnson, Esq. Appellate Counsel Public Defender Services Charleston, West Virginia Attorney for Petitioner

          Patrick Morrisey, Esq. Attorney General Nic Dalton, Esq. Assistant Attorney General Katlyn Miller, Esq. Assistant Attorney General Attorneys for Respondent.

         SYLLABUS

         1. "In reviewing challenges to the findings and conclusions of the circuit court in a habeas corpus action, we apply a three-prong standard of review. We review the final order and the ultimate disposition under an abuse of discretion standard; the underlying factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard; and questions of law are subject to a de novo review." Syl. Pt. 1, Mathena v. Haines, 219 W.Va. 417, 633 S.E.2d 771 (2006).

         2. "West Virginia Code section 53-4A-7(c) (1994) requires a circuit court denying or granting relief in a habeas corpus proceeding to make specific findings of fact and conclusions of law relating to each contention advanced by the petitioner, and to state the grounds upon which the matter was determined." Syl. Pt. 1, State ex rel. Watson v. Hill, 200 W.Va. 201, 488 S.E.2d 476 (1997).

         3. "A court having jurisdiction over habeas corpus proceedings may deny a petition for a writ of habeas corpus without a hearing . . . if the petition, exhibits, affidavits or other documentary evidence filed therewith show to such court's satisfaction that the petitioner is entitled to no relief." Syl. Pt. 1, in part, Perdue v. Coiner, 156 W.Va. 467, 194 S.E.2d 657 (1973).

          LOUGHRY, Chief Justice.

         The petitioner, Jack R. Watts, appeals a May 21, 2015, final order of the Circuit Court of Ohio County denying his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petitioner, argues, inter alia, that the circuit court's order is insufficient to permit meaningful appellate review. Having considered the parties' briefs, oral arguments, the submitted appendix record, and pertinent authorities, we find merit to the petitioner's argument and, therefore, remand this case for the circuit court to make specific findings of fact and conclusions of law to support its ruling.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The petitioner was sentenced on October 28, 2011, to an aggregate term of incarceration of 215 to 705 years and fifty years of supervised release upon his conviction of four counts of first degree sexual assault, five counts of first degree sexual abuse, and nine counts of sexual abuse by a person in a position of trust to a child. Thereafter, the petitioner filed a direct appeal of his convictions with this Court. By memorandum decision entered on April 16, 2013, this Court affirmed the petitioner's convictions.[1]

         On July 17, 2013, the petitioner filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Circuit Court of Ohio County asserting twenty-three grounds for relief. The petitioner also requested the appointment of habeas counsel. By order entered on August 16, 2013, the circuit court appointed attorney Mark Panepinto to serve as the petitioner's habeas counsel and afforded him ninety days to submit a revised habeas petition on behalf of the petitioner setting forth any and all grounds for post-conviction relief.[2]

         On February 13, 2015, Mr. Panepinto filed a document with the circuit court that he styled as a "Certificate of No Merit." Mr. Panepinto indicated in his "Certificate of No Merit" that he had thoroughly reviewed approximately 3, 000 pages of transcripts, evidence, discovery, and related matters pertaining to the petitioner's case. Mr. Panepinto then stated:

This counsel certifies that based upon the review of the totality of the documents and information obtained and after discussions with both former court-appointed counsel of the Petitioner, that this counsel cannot ethically, and within the applicable rules, argue any of the issues asserted in the pending Habeas Corpus Petition. Additionally, counsel certifies that it is his opinion and belief that there exists no other viable grounds for Habeas Corpus relief by virtue of an Amended Petition for Habeas Corpus as a Habeas Corpus action would have no merit.

         In response to Mr. Panepinto's "Certificate of No Merit, " the petitioner filed a motion for a change ...


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