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Christopher H. v. Martin

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 17, 2019

CHRISTOPHER H., Petitioner Below, Petitioner
v.
MICHAEL MARTIN, ACTING SUPERINTENDENT, HUTTONSVILLE CORRECTIONAL CENTER, Respondent Below, Respondent

          Submitted: March 6, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Monroe County The Honorable Robert Irons, Judge Civil Action No. 13-C-82

          Matthew Brummond Public Defender Services Charleston, West Virginia Attorney for Petitioner

          Patrick Morrisey Attorney General Elizabeth Grant Assistant Attorney General Shannon Frederick Kiser Assistant Attorney General Charleston, West Virginia Attorneys for Respondent

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "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).

         2. "Probation is a matter of grace and not a matter of right." Syllabus point 3, State v. Jones, 216 W.Va. 666, 610 S.E.2d 1 (2004).

         3. "In 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." Syllabus point 5, State v. Miller, 194 W.Va. 3, 459 S.E.2d 114 (1995).

         4. "In deciding ineffective . . . assistance claims, a court need not address both prongs of the conjunctive standard of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), and State v. Miller, 194 W.Va. 3, 459 S.E.2d 114 (1995), but may dispose of such a claim based solely on a petitioner's failure to meet either prong of the test." Syllabus point 5, State ex rel. Daniel v. Legursky, 195 W.Va. 314, 465 S.E.2d 416 (1995).

          OPINION

          JENKINS, JUSTICE:

         Petitioner Christopher H.[1] herein appeals the October 18, 2017 order of the Circuit Court of Monroe County denying his petition for writ of habeas corpus.[2]Christopher H. contends that he is entitled to habeas relief because he was denied due process and effective assistance of trial counsel when he did not receive a sex offender evaluation pursuant to West Virginia Code § 62-12-2(e) (LexisNexis 2014).[3] The State responds and asserts that the circuit court did not err. Having considered the briefs submitted on appeal, the appendix record, the parties' oral arguments, and the applicable legal authority, we find no error. Accordingly, we affirm the circuit court's order.

         I.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In August of 2012, Christopher H. pleaded guilty to one count of sexual abuse by a parent.[4] See generally W.Va. Code § 61-8D-5 (LexisNexis 2014) (defining crime of sexual abuse by a parent). At the plea hearing, Christopher H. was told that the statutory sentence for this offense was an indeterminate term of ten to twenty years in prison unless the court ordered probation. The court also advised Christopher H. that it had no discretion to grant probation unless he received a satisfactory sex offender evaluation stating he could receive treatment in the community. Once the court accepted his guilty plea, Christopher H.'s counsel advised the circuit court that he had spoken with Christopher H. about his right to a sex offender evaluation under West Virginia Code § 62-12-2(e), [5] and that Christopher H. was "pretty adamant that he wanted to waive those rights." The Court verified with Christopher H., and he acknowledged that he wished to waive the evaluation because he was "financially unable to do anything otherwise." Citing his own indigence as a reason for waiving said evaluation, Christopher H. was not informed by the court, or his own counsel, that such an evaluation could be provided at no cost to him. See W.Va. Trial Ct. R. 35.05 (requiring West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to pay for evaluations conducted pursuant to W.Va. Code § 62-12-2(e)). Nothing further was mentioned regarding Christopher H.'s indigence, and the court proceeded to sentencing. Christopher H. was sentenced to "not less than ten nor more than twenty years in prison" in accordance with the statutory sentencing provisions. See W.Va. Code § 61-8D-5 (establishing sentence for crime of sexual abuse by a parent).

         Christopher H. never directly appealed his sentence; however, in November of 2013, he filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus. He was then appointed counsel, and an amended petition was filed with two grounds raised for relief: (1) due process violations and (2) ineffective assistance of counsel. Both of these grounds were based on his allegation that neither his attorney nor the circuit court informed him that the State would have provided the sex offender evaluation at no cost to him. See W.Va. Trial Ct. R. 35.05.

         At the hearing on Christopher H.'s petition for a writ of habeas corpus, he sought the relief of undergoing a sex offender evaluation and having a new sentencing hearing, if necessary. By order entered October 18, 2017, the circuit court denied Christopher H.'s petition for habeas relief finding that even a favorable evaluation would not mitigate his sentence, and, given the severity of his crime, probation would be grossly lenient. Further, the court determined that because its sentencing decision was based on the "heinous nature" of Christopher H.'s crime, "entirely independent of the fact that [he] was indigent," fundamental notions of fairness were not violated. As for his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the court simply found that he was not entitled to relief as he suffered no harm because the sentence imposed by the court would be the same regardless of the outcome of an evaluation. It is from the circuit court's denial of his petition for writ of habeas corpus that Christopher H. now appeals.

         II.

         STANDARD ...


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