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Slonaker v. Ames

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

September 13, 2019

Daniel Slonaker, Petitioner Below, Petitioner
Donnie Ames, Superintendent, Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, Respondent Below, Respondent

          (Monongalia County 13-C-846)


         Petitioner Daniel Slonaker, by counsel Jason E. Wingfield, appeals the Circuit Court of Monongalia County's January 24, 2018, order denying his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Respondent Donnie Ames, Superintendent, by counsel Caleb A. Ellis, filed a response.[1] On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in denying his habeas petition based upon an erroneous standard. He further argues that the circuit court erred in denying his petition without affording him a hearing in regard to his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, improper prosecutorial comments, and involuntary statements made to law enforcement.

         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 2011, following a jury trial, petitioner was convicted of three counts of second-degree sexual assault arising from forced intercourse with the victim. For these crimes, the circuit court sentenced petitioner to ten to twenty-five years of incarceration for each count. Further, petitioner, a recidivist, received an enhanced sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. Petitioner filed a direct appeal, and this Court affirmed the trial court's decision on May 17, 2013. See State v. Slonaker, No. 12-0127, 2013 WL 2157831 ( W.Va. May 17, 2013)(memorandum decision).

         Petitioner filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus on October 30, 2013. After being appointed counsel, petitioner filed two amended petitions, the second being filed on January 17, 2017. Relevant to this appeal, petitioner asserted several grounds for relief, including ineffective assistance of counsel due to trial counsel's alleged failure to call witnesses at trial, raise legitimate defenses, and raise certain arguments on direct appeal. Petitioner also asserted improper prosecutorial statements and that his statement to police was coerced and involuntary.

         Following receipt of a response, but without holding a hearing, the habeas court denied petitioner habeas relief on January 24, 2018. The habeas court undertook a review of the records from petitioner's underlying proceedings and concluded that petitioner was not denied effective assistance of counsel. While petitioner asserted that his trial counsel should have called witnesses to corroborate his statements given to law enforcement, the court determined that petitioner never identified or claimed that there were other witnesses to the events, other than those who testified at trial. Petitioner also contended that his trial counsel should have called a subject matter expert that could have explained why victims make false accusations of rape. However, the habeas court found that no such witness was needed given that the victim never accused petitioner of rape due to her complete inability to remember any of the events of that night.[2]Further, although petitioner averred that his counsel erred in not calling an expert witness to rebut one of the State's witnesses, the habeas court found that there was no need as the State's witness testified as to what petitioner wanted to prove-that there were no major injuries to the victim. The habeas court concluded that "[n]one of these allegations amount to ineffective assistance of counsel and had Petitioner's counsel pursued them, it would not have made a difference in the outcome of the trial."

         The habeas court also denied petitioner's claims regarding his allegedly coerced statement to the police due to the fact that testimony demonstrated that, contrary to petitioner's claims, he had been permitted to use the restroom prior to giving his statement. Moreover, the recording of petitioner's statement demonstrated that petitioner "did almost all of the talking" and did not appear to be in a rush or in distress. The habeas court also dismissed petitioner's improper prosecutorial comments claim, finding that the remarks made by the prosecutor were not "devastatingly prejudicial" and did not amount to a violation of petitioner's right to a fair trial. Further, it found the statements did not result in manifest injustice and did not warrant a reversal of the verdict. 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." Syl. Pt. 1, Mathena v. Haines, 219 W.Va. 417, 633 S.E.2d 771 (2006).

Syl. Pt. 1, Anstey v. Ballard, 237 W.Va. 411, 787 S.E.2d 864 (2016).

         On appeal, petitioner first contends that the habeas court erred in denying him an omnibus hearing based upon an incorrect evidentiary standard. According to petitioner, the habeas court erroneously applied a preponderance of the evidence standard, rather than the lower probable cause standard set forth in West Virginia Code § 53-4A-7(a).[3] By improperly applying a higher standard of review, petitioner argues he was denied the benefit of an evidentiary hearing, which would have allowed him to address the claims set forth in his petition. Secondly, petitioner contends that the habeas court erred in dismissing his petition without holding a hearing on his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, prejudicial statements made by the prosecutor, and that his statements to the police were coerced. Petitioner avers that his claims as set forth in his petition were sufficient to warrant an omnibus hearing and that the habeas court abused its discretion in denying the same. We disagree.

         We have previously noted that

[i]t is evident from a reading of W.Va. Code § 53-4A-7(a) that a petitioner for habeas corpus relief is not entitled, as a matter of right, to a full evidentiary hearing in every proceeding instituted under the provisions of the post-conviction habeas corpus act. . . . A hearing is required only "[i]f it appears to the court . . . that there is probable cause to believe that the petitioner may be entitled to some relief and that the contention or contentions and grounds (in fact or law) advanced have not been previously and finally adjudicated or waived." Even in such circumstances, there is no requirement that a full evidentiary hearing be conducted.

Gibson v. Dale, 173 W.Va. 681, 688, 319 S.E.2d 806, 813 (1984) (footnote omitted). 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 ...

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