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Lamp v. Pszczolkowski

Supreme Court of West Virginia

June 16, 2017

Matthew Edward Lamp, Plaintiff Below, Plaintiff
v.
Karen Pszczolkowski, Warden, Northern Correctional Facility, Respondent Below, Respondent

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Matthew Edward Lamp, by counsel Robin S. Bonovitch, appeals the Circuit Court of Wood County's April 15, 2016, order denying his amended petition for writ of habeas corpus. Respondent, Warden Karen Pszczolkowski, by counsel Shannon Frederick Kiser, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order.[1] On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in denying habeas relief because (1) his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective; (2) his guilty plea was involuntary; (3) his prison sentence was excessive, disproportionate to his crime, and severe in nature; and (4) his confession was coerced.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         In January of 2013, petitioner was indicted on two felony counts: (1) murder of a child by a guardian or custodian, in violation of West Virginia Code § 61-8D-2, and (2) death of a child by a guardian or custodian, in violation of West Virginia Code § 61-8D-2a.[2]

         In October of 2013, the circuit court held a plea hearing. At that hearing, petitioner pled guilty to one count of death of a child by a guardian or custodian, and, in exchange for that guilty plea, the State agreed to the dismissal of the second count in the indictment and to recommend a non-binding term of thirty years in prison. The circuit court and petitioner engaged in a plea colloquy. During that colloquy, petitioner agreed that the decision to enter into the plea agreement was made "entirely of [his] own free will." Petitioner further stated his understanding that he could "get forty years in prison[.]" When asked whether he understood that by pleading guilty he waived his right to challenge all pre-trial defects and alleged errors, he answered "[y]es, sir." In laying the factual basis for his guilty plea, petitioner explained that he struck a then three-year-old child (one of his girlfriend's children) in the face, knocking the child into a counter. The child ultimately died from his injuries. At the conclusion of the hearing, the circuit court accepted petitioner's guilty plea and scheduled the matter for sentencing.

         In January of 2014, the circuit court held a sentencing hearing. Following a statement from the child victim's mother and arguments of counsel, the circuit court sentenced petitioner to forty years in prison. A "motion for reconsideration" was filed and denied. No appeal was filed.

         More than one year after his sentence was imposed, petitioner, pro se, initiated the instant habeas proceeding with the filing of a petition for writ of habeas corpus. Following the appointment of new counsel, an amended habeas petition was filed in September of 2015 raising nineteen grounds for relief. Among his many grounds, petitioner argued that (1) his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to pursue a direct appeal; (2) his plea was involuntary; (3) his sentence was constitutionally excessive; and (4) his confession was coerced.

         In February of 2016, the circuit court held an omnibus evidentiary hearing. At that hearing, petitioner testified that his trial counsel failed to appeal his case; failed to subpoena witnesses to the sentencing hearing; and failed to act on the request for co-counsel.[3] At the omnibus hearing, petitioner's trial counsel also testified and denied petitioner's claims. Trial counsel stated that he was never asked to file an appeal in this matter, and if petitioner had expressed a wish to file an appeal, trial counsel explained that he "would have certainly listened to what [petitioner] would like to have done." Trial counsel further testified that petitioner did not ask him to present any witnesses at the sentencing hearing. Although he acknowledged that petitioner had asked him on one occasion whether co-counsel should be appointed, trial counsel testified that he explained the case to petitioner and "[petitioner] acted like he understood what [I] was talking about and then we moved off that subject. He didn't bring it back up." At the conclusion of the hearing, the circuit court denied each of petitioner's claims. By order entered on April 15, 2016, the circuit court denied petitioner's amended habeas petition. This appeal followed.

We apply the following standard of review in habeas appeals:
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).

         On appeal, petitioner first argues that the circuit court erred in denying habeas relief because trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective. Petitioner claims that trial counsel failed to file an appeal on his behalf; failed to subpoena witnesses to the sentencing hearing; and failed to act on petitioner's request to have co-counsel appointed. We have held that claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are "governed by the two-pronged test established in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984): (1) Counsel's performance was deficient under an objective standard of reasonableness; and (2) there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceedings would have been different." Syl. Pt. 5, State v. Miller, 194 W.Va. 3, 459 S.E.2d 114 (1995).

         In this case, notably, petitioner pled guilty with no condition reserving an issue for appeal. We have explained that a "defendant waives significant constitutional rights by entering into a plea agreement[.]" State ex rel. Forbes v. Kaufman, 185 W.Va. 72, 77, 404 S.E.2d 763, 768 (1991). Further,

When a defendant unconditionally and voluntarily pleads guilty to an offense, the defendant generally waives nonjurisdictional objections to a circuit court's rulings, and therefore cannot appeal those questions to a higher court. Claims of nonjurisdictional defects in the proceedings, such as unlawfully or unconstitutionally obtained evidence or illegal detention, generally will not survive a plea bargain.

State v. Legg, 207 W.Va. 686, 690 n. 7, 536 S.E.2d 110, 114 n. 7 (2000) (relying, in part, on Justice Cleckley's concurrence in State v. Lilly, 194 ...


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