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Jones v. Terry

Supreme Court of West Virginia

April 9, 2018

James Jones, Petitioner Below, Petitioner
v.
Ralph Terry, Acting Warden, Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, Respondent Below, Respondent

          Jefferson County 12-C-315

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner James Jones, by counsel Matthew D. Brummond, appeals the Circuit Court of Jefferson County's December 29, 2016, order denying his amended petition for writ of habeas corpus. Respondent Ralph Terry, Acting Warden of Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, by counsel Robert L. Hogan, filed a response.[1] On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in denying his amended petition for writ of habeas corpus without affording him an evidentiary hearing on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

         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 December of 2006, petitioner entered a bar in Jefferson County and began shooting into the crowd. Three people were shot in the process, one of whom died from his injuries. In April of 2007, petitioner was indicted on the following counts: (1) one count of first-degree murder, (2) two counts of attempted first-degree murder, (3) two counts of malicious assault, (4) six counts of wanton endangerment involving a firearm, (5) three counts of shooting at another person in a place of public resort, and (6) one count of prohibited person in possession of a firearm.

         The trial court held a status hearing in May of 2007, during which petitioner advised the trial court that he was not currently competent to stand trial. Petitioner underwent an evaluation by a mental health expert, who issued a report in July of 2007, opining that petitioner was not then competent to stand trial. Two additional experts were consulted and each concluded that petitioner was competent to stand trial. In September of 2007, petitioner's mental health expert testified during a competency hearing that petitioner was not competent to stand trial. The trial court held a second status hearing in November of 2007, during which petitioner advised the trial court that he was "withdrawing his request for [a] further competency hearing in this matter." Petitioner told the trial court that he had made significant improvement in his mental health treatment, was taking the maximum amount of Trilafon[2], and no longer believed that his competency was at issue. Petitioner's counsel concurred with the assessment. However, later in November of 2007, petitioner notified the court of his intention to use a diminished capacity defense.

         In January of 2008, petitioner entered into a binding Alford[3] plea agreement. Per the agreement, petitioner pled guilty to (1) one count of first-degree murder, (2) two counts of malicious assault, and (3) six counts of wanton endangerment, in exchange for the State's recommendation of mercy and the dismissal of the remaining counts in the indictment. The trial court sentenced petitioner to an effective sentence of life in prison, with mercy, plus twenty years. Petitioner did not file a petition for direct appeal.

         In August of 2012, petitioner filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus. Petitioner was appointed counsel, and in May of 2016, he filed an amended petition raising several grounds, including ineffective assistance of counsel. Specifically, petitioner asserted that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to properly litigate petitioner's competency, failing to request a continuance to permit petitioner additional time to consider the plea terms or permitting him to enter into the plea while mentally incompetent, and failing to properly investigate the case and make appropriate pretrial motions. Without conducting an evidentiary hearing, the circuit court denied petitioner's amended petition by order entered on December 29, 2016. It is from this order that petitioner appeals.

         This Court reviews appeals of circuit court orders denying habeas corpus relief under the following standard:

"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." Syllabus point 1, Mathena v. Haines, 219 W.Va. 417, 633 S.E.2d 771 (2006).

Syl. Pt. 1, State ex rel. Franklin v. McBride, 226 W.Va. 375, 701 S.E.2d 97 (2009).

         On appeal, petitioner contends that the circuit court erred in not holding an evidentiary hearing on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Specifically, petitioner argues that the circuit court abused its discretion in relying upon the first prong of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), to summarily dismiss his petition for writ of habeas corpus without holding an evidentiary hearing. We disagree.

         To begin, petitioner acknowledges, evidentiary hearings are not proper in every case:

[a] court having jurisdiction over habeas corpus proceedings may deny a petition for a writ of habeas corpus without a hearing and without appointing counsel for the petitioner 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, Perdue v. Coiner, 156 W.Va. 467, 194 S.E.2d 657 (1973). The decision to hold a hearing rests in the "sound discretion" of the circuit court. Tex S. v. Pszczolkowski, 236 W.Va. 245, 253, 778 S.E.2d 694, 702 (2015) (citation omitted). Although petitioner urges this Court to conclude that he was entitled to a hearing as we found in State ex rel. Watson v. Hill, 200 W.Va. 201, 488 S.E.2d 476 (1997) and State ex rel. Nazelrod v. Hun, 199 W.Va. 582, 486 S.E.2d 322 (1997), our decisions in those cases were predicated on the finding that "[a]n examination of the ineffective assistance of counsel claim requires an examination of facts not developed in the appellant's trial transcript." Id. at 584, 486 S.E.2d at 324. "Without any findings whatsoever, this Court can exercise no meaningful review, and is compelled to order a hearing." Watson, 200 W.Va. at 205, 488 S.E.2d at 479-80. Petitioner's underlying record, however, was sufficiently developed to allow the circuit court to conclude that he was unable to establish that counsel's representation was deficient. [4]

         Petitioner's first allegation regarding his trial counsel's ineffectiveness is that counsel failed to properly litigate petitioner's mental capacity issue. However, evidence of trial counsel's effort to investigate petitioner's history of mental illness was sufficiently established at many stages during the proceedings below. Only one month after petitioner was indicted, his trial counsel notified the State of his intention to assert a mental competency defense. Petitioner underwent an evaluation by his own mental health expert, who opined that petitioner was not competent to stand trial. Petitioner then underwent two more mental health evaluations and those experts opined that petitioner was, in fact, competent to stand trial. As such, a competency hearing was scheduled and petitioner's own expert testified as to why he believed petitioner was not competent to stand trial. In reviewing the record of trial counsel's questioning of the expert, the habeas court found that "[t]he questions posed by trial counsel were entirely appropriate to allow his expert witness to explain his opinions regarding the [p]etitioner's competency and inability to assist in his own defense, despite understanding the proceedings. In this regard, counsel's performance was not deficient under an objective standard of reasonableness . . . ."

         Further, the record indicates that petitioner himself chose to withdraw his competency defense. The trial court's order from the November of 2007 status hearing sets forth that

[t]he [d]efendant informed this [c]ourt that he was withdrawing his request for further competency hearing in this matter. The [d]efendant made known to the [c]ourt the significant and marked improvement of his mental state due to the medical treatment he is receiving at the Eastern Regional Jail. His medication levels have been increased several times, each time yielding a benefit to the [d]efendant. He is currently taking the maximum amount of trilophan [sic] and no longer believes that his competency is an issue. His counsel concurred with this assessment.

         After withdrawing his request for further competency assessment, petitioner's trial counsel filed a notice of intent to use a diminished capacity defense, which again raised the issue of petitioner's mental health. The habeas court, in its order denying petitioner's petition, found

that trial counsel promptly asserted a mental health defense, engaged the expert in services of a respected expert witness, secured the testimony of that witness, and substantially litigated the matter over a period of months. In the intervening time [p]etitioner was treated for his mental health issues while incarcerated in the regional jail, resulting in the [p]etitioner himself asserting that his competence was no longer at issue, a position which counsel agreed with at hearing [sic] on November 2, 2007. These facts do not suggest that counsel was in any way ineffective.

         Accordingly, the habeas court found that there were sufficient facts in the record to determine that petitioner's trial counsel did not fail to litigate his mental health issue. In fact, the record demonstrates that petitioner's trial counsel continuously pursued a mental competency defense until petitioner himself withdrew it, and even then, trial counsel raised the issue again. Therefore, we find no error in the habeas court's conclusion that a hearing was unnecessary to develop this claim.

         In his petition, petitioner also alleged that his counsel was ineffective for failing to request a continuance during the plea hearing so that he could have more time to consider the plea. Additionally, petitioner alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective when he allowed him to enter a guilty plea while he was incompetent. Again, we find that sufficient evidence in the record below established that petitioner was not entitled to relief in this regard. The prosecutor read the plea agreement aloud on the record. Petitioner agreed to the agreement as it had been read, voluntarily entered into his plea agreement, did not assert that he was not competent to do so, and did not assert that he needed additional time to think about the plea agreement.

         Petitioner offered the following testimony concerning his understanding of the plea agreement:

Q: All right, sir. I guess the first person I will ask would be, Mr. Jones, I just saw [your trial counsel] execute the written form of [the plea agreement] as the prosecutor was just reading from. I know that you were here in court listening to what [the prosecutor] read, is that the correct agreement you have?
A: Yes, I do believe it is.
Q: Okay. If we go forward on this, I am going to ask a whole lot more questions about your understanding, but you understood ...

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