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Robinson v. Maston

Supreme Court of West Virginia

January 14, 2019

Jaymason M. Robinson, Petitioner Below, Petitioner
v.
Russell Maston, Superintendent, Parkersburg Correctional Center and Jail, Respondent Below, Respondent

          Wood County 14-P-59

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Jaymason M. Robinson, by counsel D. Shane McCullough, appeals the Circuit Court of Wood County's November 9, 2017, order denying his petition for a writ of habeas corpus following his conviction by a jury of two counts of voluntary manslaughter and two counts of concealment of a deceased human body. Russell Maston, Superintendent, Parkersburg Correctional Center and Jail, by counsel Robert L. Hogan, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order.[1] On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in denying him habeas relief because he received ineffective assistance of counsel.

         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.

         Following the shooting deaths of Lester Wratchford and Eric Sprouse, petitioner was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of concealment of a deceased human body. Following a jury trial in March of 2011, petitioner was convicted of both counts of concealment of a deceased human body and two counts of voluntary manslaughter, a lesser-included offense of first-degree murder. According to the evidence at trial, the victims and another individual, James Denton, entered unannounced into a house where multiple individuals, including petitioner, lived. Once inside, the victims entered petitioner's bedroom while Mr. Denton remained in the kitchen. According to his trial testimony, while in the kitchen, Mr. Denton saw petitioner holding a gun in his bedroom and heard one of the victims say "[if] you kill him, you're going to have to kill me." Petitioner then shot and killed the victims. According to the State, the three individuals came to petitioner's residence to borrow camping equipment. However, petitioner's theory at trial was that the three men came to rob him of drugs and/or money, as these individuals knew petitioner to be a drug dealer. After the shooting, petitioner and an accomplice removed the victims' bodies from the home and hid them at another location. A few days later, Brooke Crawford, one of the victim's girlfriends, called the police about the incident, although she provided only "minimal information." The following day, petitioner's accomplice reported to the police his involvement in hiding the bodies, which were discovered with his direction.

         During petitioner's trial, the State presented Mr. Denton's testimony. According to the witness, he and the victims went to petitioner's home to borrow camping equipment for an upcoming music festival. Mr. Denton also testified to witnessing petitioner shoot and kill the victims. On cross-examination, petitioner's counsel was able to get Mr. Denton to admit to certain facts intended to undermine his credibility, including the following: (1) he withheld certain facts from police during his initial statement; (2) he gave a prior statement to law enforcement that indicated he was in the living room at the time of the shooting and did not suggest that he witnessed the incident, unlike his trial testimony; (3) he asserted that the victims went to petitioner's residence to buy drugs in his statement to police; and, (4) he was intoxicated during the incident.

         In support of his theory that the victims came to his home to rob him, petitioner testified that about two weeks prior to the incident, Ms. Crawford called him and asked him to sell drugs to her and one of the victims, although petitioner refused. According to petitioner's testimony, when the victims came to his home they asked him to provide them with drugs, which he claimed he could not do because he did not have any. Petitioner testified that the victims then entered his bedroom and began searching it and that one of the victims threatened him in an attempt to obtain drugs. According to petitioner, when one of the victims overturned his mattress and revealed a gun, the victim reached for it but petitioner grabbed it first. Petitioner testified that the victims then attempted to get the gun from him and that he shot them in the ensuing struggle.

         Petitioner called Ms. Crawford, who testified that the victims had not liked petitioner. Petitioner also called John Studenic, a man who was a friend of one of the victims and who, a few days before the shooting, overheard one of the victims making plans to rob a house on Pike Street, where petitioner lived. Petitioner also called Chris Grinter, an acquaintance of both petitioner and the victims. Mr. Grinter testified that about a week prior to the shooting he heard one of the victims planning to rob petitioner. Ultimately, the jury convicted petitioner of two counts of voluntary manslaughter, lesser-included offenses of first-degree murder, and two counts of concealment of a deceased human body.

         In February of 2012, the circuit court resentenced petitioner to a term of fifteen years of imprisonment for each of his voluntary manslaughter convictions and a term of one to five years of incarceration for each of his convictions of concealment of a deceased human body, said sentences to be served consecutively. Thereafter, petitioner appealed his conviction to this Court, which unanimously affirmed the same by memorandum decision in June of 2013. See State v. Robinson, No. 12-0368, 2013 WL 3185070 (W.Va. June 24, 2013) (memorandum decision).

         Following the appointment of counsel and the filing of a petition for writ of habeas corpus alleging ineffective assistance of counsel, the circuit court held an omnibus evidentiary hearing in June of 2017, during which petitioner and his trial counsel testified. According to the circuit court's ultimate findings, petitioner's theory of the case and evidence presented at trial supported his claim of self-defense, tended to impeach the State's witnesses, and cast the victims in a more negative light, generally diminishing his chances of being convicted of first-degree murder. However, the circuit court also noted that petitioner's defense carried implicit risks that "the jury would view him negatively, that testifying in his own defense would be necessary and that a jury would evaluate his credibility more negatively." Evidence further established that petitioner and his trial counsel discussed the theory of defense and strategy on several occasions and over a period of months with petitioner agreeing to the defense with an awareness of the risks. Ultimately, the circuit court denied petitioner habeas relief.[2] This appeal followed.

         Our review of the circuit court's order denying petitioner's petition for a writ of habeas corpus is governed by 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). Further,

"[i]n the West Virginia courts, claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are to be governed by the two-pronged test established in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (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).

Syl. Pt. 2, Raines v. Ballard, 236 W.Va. 588, 782 S.E.2d 775 (2016). Importantly, hindsight is not to be ...


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