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Strange v. Ballard

Supreme Court of West Virginia

November 3, 2017

Trayvon Strange, Petitioner Below, Petitioner
v.
David Ballard, Warden, Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, Respondent Below, Respondent

         Mercer County 16-C-328

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Trayvon Strange, pro se, appeals the November 16, 2016, order of the Circuit Court of Mercer County denying his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Respondent David Ballard, Warden, Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, by counsel Shannon Frederick Kiser, filed a summary response in support of the circuit court's order. Petitioner filed a reply.

         The 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 October of 2014, a Mercer County grand jury indicted petitioner on one count of first-degree murder. The charge stemmed from an incident where petitioner shot Steven Rhodes ("the victim") in the head. Petitioner was twenty-years-old. The parties reached a plea agreement whereby petitioner would plead guilty to the indictment and the State would agree that the appropriate disposition of the case would be a life sentence with the possibility for parole. Because the parties entered into the plea agreement pursuant to Rule 11(e)(1)(C) of the West Virginia Rules of Criminal Procedure, the mutually-agreed upon sentence recommendation would be binding on the circuit court.

         However, there was extensive discussion at both the plea and sentencing hearings about whether, due to petitioner's age, the circuit court should suspend his life term of incarceration in favor of sentencing him as a youthful offender pursuant to West Virginia Code § 25-4-6.[1] At the January 20, 2015, plea hearing, the circuit court (1) questioned whether petitioner was eligible for youthful offender sentencing because he was pleading guilty to a felony offense punishable by a life term of incarceration and (2) informed petitioner that, even if he was not excluded from youthful offender sentencing, it was unlikely to sentence him pursuant to West Virginia Code § 25-4-6 given that he killed another person in a disagreement over a hallway light.

         Being so informed, petitioner told the circuit court that he still would "take this plea." During petitioner's plea colloquy pursuant to Call v. McKenzie, 159 W.Va. 191, 220 S.E.2d 665 (1975), the circuit court went over the constitutional rights petitioner would be waiving and asked him whether he was pleading guilty as his own "free and voluntary act." Petitioner responded, "Yes." The circuit court inquired whether petitioner was pleading guilty because he was in fact guilty. Petitioner answered, "I'm guilty because I shot [the victim]."

         Both of petitioner's attorneys informed the circuit court that it was in his best interest to enter into the plea agreement. Petitioner's attorneys also responded that they were satisfied with the State's production of discovery in the case. Petitioner stated that the attorneys represented him satisfactorily and that he had no complaints regarding their performance. Petitioner testified that he met with one attorney three times and with the other attorney approximately five times.

         The State proffered the factual basis for petitioner's guilty plea. The State noted that the victim, who initially survived being shot, identified petitioner in a 911 call and in a statement to a police officer. The State noted that the victim told the officer that "it was [petitioner] that had the gun."

         Thereafter, the circuit court again asked petitioner whether he was pleading guilty "freely and voluntarily." Petitioner responded affirmatively. Finally, the circuit court inquired whether petitioner still desired that it accept his guilty plea. Petitioner again responded affirmatively, requesting that the circuit court "accept the plea." At the conclusion of the plea hearing, the circuit court found that petitioner entered his guilty plea knowingly and voluntarily, and that he did so with a full understanding of his constitutional rights. The circuit court further found that the plea agreement was in the interest of justice and that a factual basis existed for petitioner's guilty plea. The circuit court conditionally accepted petitioner's plea pending a presentence investigation report.

         At the March 12, 2015, sentencing hearing, the circuit court found that the presentence investigation report was incorrect in stating that petitioner was eligible for youthful offender sentencing pursuant to West Virginia Code § 25-4-6. The circuit court definitively ruled that West Virginia Code § 25-4-6 provided that petitioner was ineligible for youthful offender sentencing because he was pleading guilty to a felony offense punishable by a life term of incarceration. The circuit court also repeated that, even if petitioner was eligible under West Virginia Code § 25-4-6, it was unlikely to sentence him as a youthful offender given the facts of this case. Accordingly, the circuit court allowed petitioner the opportunity to confer with his attorneys and the opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea.

         Following two discussions off the record, petitioner informed the circuit court that he did not desire to withdraw his plea and wanted to continue with the sentencing hearing. Thereafter, the circuit court found that, because of petitioner's "young age, " a Mercer County jury would have made a recommendation of mercy if the case had gone to trial. Therefore, the circuit court accepted petitioner's guilty plea and, pursuant to Rule 11(e)(1)(C), imposed the mutually-agreed upon sentence of a life term of incarceration with the possibility of parole.

         In State v. Strange ("Strange I"), No. 15-0372, 2016 WL 143433, at *2 (W.Va. January 11, 2016) (memorandum decision), petitioner appealed the circuit court's ruling that he was ineligible for youthful offender sentencing because he was pleading guilty to a felony offense punishable by a life term of incarceration.[2] This Court affirmed the circuit court's ruling, finding that it was consistent with the clear and unambiguous language of West Virginia Code § 25-4-6. Strange I, 2016 WL 143433, at *2.

         On October 3, 2016, petitioner filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pro se alleging that (1) his guilty plea was not knowingly and voluntarily entered because of his trial attorneys' erroneous advice that he was eligible for youthful offender sentencing; and (2) his attorneys failed to provide effective assistance because they conducted an inadequate investigation and allowed him to plead guilty without a full understanding of the potential for youthful offender sentencing. By order entered on November 16, 2016, the circuit court denied petitioner's habeas petition without a hearing or appointment of counsel. First, the circuit court found that, at the sentencing hearing, it "allowed [petitioner] the opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea once he was notified that he was not eligible for youthful offender sentencing." The circuit court further found that it would not have sentenced petitioner as a youthful offender given that he killed a man over "an argument about a light bulb." Second, the circuit court found that petitioner's trial attorneys' advice "to plead guilty was not outside the broad range of professionally competent assistance" given the weight of evidence, which it summarized as follows:

[Petitioner] also admitted that he had some past problems with the victim and [the victim] had a bad habit of turning off the lights in the stairway in the hallway. He indicated that[, ] on the day of the incident[, ] he and [the] victim were arguing and he thought [the] victim pulled a machete. He initially left the apartment building[, ] but ...

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