Jefferson County 12-C-315
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. 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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
January of 2008, petitioner entered into a binding
Alford 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.
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
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).
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.
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
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 . . . ."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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