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Charles L. v. Ames

Supreme Court of West Virginia

March 6, 2019

Charles L., Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
v.
Donnie Ames, Superintendent, Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, Defendant Below, Respondent

          Preston County 16-C-166

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Charles L.[1] was convicted of one count of first-degree sexual abuse and one count of sexual abuse by a guardian, custodian, or person in a position of trust. Petitioner was in his early twenties when he committed the crimes. The victim was the nine-year-old half-sister of Petitioner's wife. Petitioner filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Circuit Court of Preston County, West Virginia, and by order entered September 8, 2017, it denied relief. On appeal to this Court, Petitioner raised several assignments of error.[2]

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs, their oral arguments, and the record on appeal. Upon review, the Court discerns no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. Consequently, a memorandum decision affirming the order of the circuit court is the appropriate disposition pursuant to Rule 21 of the West Virginia Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         I. Procedural History

         The grand jury returned an indictment against Petitioner in 2010, charging him with four felonies: two counts of first-degree sexual assault in violation of West Virginia Code § 61-8B-3 (2014), and two counts of sexual abuse by a parent, guardian, or custodian in violation of West Virginia Code § 61-8D-5 (2014). The case against Petitioner proceeded to trial in January 2011. At trial, the victim testified that while Petitioner was babysitting her, she was sitting on his lap watching television and that Petitioner touched her vagina for "[a] couple of minutes maybe;" that it happened more than once but she was unable to say exactly how many times; and that "[i]t hurt a little bit." The victim's mother testified that the victim told her about Petitioner's actions.

         One of the victim's therapists, psychologist Abigail Leslie, testified that the victim told her that Petitioner touched her in her private parts. She stated that the victim had some physical reactions to the stress caused by the abuse. According to Ms. Leslie, during their counseling sessions, the victim told her that "she was sitting on the couch with - on [Petitioner's] lap and he put his hands down her pants and stuck his hands in her vagina." Another therapist, Rebecca Fiest, testified similarly to Ms. Leslie regarding the victim's disclosure.

         Petitioner testified in his own defense. While he denied that he intentionally touched the victim's vagina, he stated that

[i]f I had any contact with her vagina, it would have been fully clothed. It would have been totally accidentally. While we could have been wrestling around or tickling or horseplaying, there could have been-there was no intentional touching of the vagina, and I explained that to Detective Bryan on every occasion.

         The jury convicted Petitioner of one count of first-degree sexual abuse[3] (the lesser-included offense of first-degree sexual assault) and one count of sexual abuse by a custodian. Petitioner was found not guilty of the remaining charges in the indictment. Petitioner's subsequent motion for judgment of acquittal or a new trial was denied.

         Prior to sentencing, the State requested the appointment of a special prosecutor due to a conflict. Police were investigating reports from an inmate that Petitioner was attempting to arrange the murder of the prosecuting attorney. The circuit court granted this request, appointed a new prosecuting attorney, and placed documents related to this investigation under seal.[4] Petitioner's trial counsel withdrew due to a conflict, and new counsel was appointed. In light of these events, the circuit court rescheduled the sentencing hearing.

         In October 2011, the circuit court sentenced Petitioner to five to twenty-five years of incarceration on the first-degree sexual abuse charge and ten to twenty years on the sexual abuse by a custodian charge. The sentences were ordered to run consecutively. This Court affirmed Petitioner's convictions on direct appeal. See State v. Charles [L.], No. 11-1416, 2013 WL 1501073 (W.Va. Apr. 12, 2013) (memorandum decision).

         In 2016, Petitioner, pro se, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In 2017, the petition was amended upon appointment of counsel.[5] The circuit court conducted an omnibus habeas corpus hearing and denied relief. This appeal followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         Petitioner raises six assignments of error on appeal. This Court reviews appeals of circuit court orders denying habeas 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[ed] 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 ...

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