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State v. Dent

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

October 11, 2019

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
Clifton Marcus Dent, Defendant Below, Petitioner

          Ohio County 17-F-100


         Petitioner Clifton Marcus Dent, by counsel Richard W. Hollandsworth, appeals the August 30, 2018, order of the Circuit Court of Ohio County that sentenced petitioner to ninety years in prison for his Kennedy[1] plea to one count of robbery in the first-degree. The State of West Virginia, by counsel Scott E. Johnson, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court abused its discretion and violated Article III, Section 5 of the West Virginia Constitution in sentencing petitioner.

         The 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.

         At about 4:30 p.m. on May 12, 2017, police officers arrived at the scene of a carjacking in Wheeling. The officers spoke with the victim, seventy-two-year-old Diane Higgs, who was bleeding from her nose and face and had severe swelling around both eyes. Ms. Higgs reported that, as she parked in front of her apartment building, she saw a black man with short hair walking towards her gold 2008 Honda CRV (the "Honda"). The man opened the Honda's door and demanded Ms. Higgs's car keys. When Ms. Higgs did not immediately comply, the man repeatedly struck her in the face and head, pulled her out of the Honda, and threw her onto the ground. The man then drove off in the Honda going the wrong direction on a one-way street. The police arrived at the scene soon thereafter. They questioned Ms. Higgs and found she needed immediate medical attention. Ms. Higgs was then transported to the hospital by ambulance.

         Mary L. Klosterman, who lived in the same apartment complex as Ms. Higgs, reported that she heard screams and a car alarm and observed Ms. Higgs's Honda backing out of a parking spot. Becky Meadows, who also lived in the same apartment complex, observed a black man getting into Ms. Higgs's Honda while Ms. Higgs was on the ground screaming. Soon thereafter, Karen Clyne reported seeing a gold Honda driving the wrong way on Pike Street. The driver of the Honda yelled at Ms. Clyne to "get out of the way." Ms. Clyne described the driver as a black male with curly hair who appeared to be thirty to forty years old. At 5:39 p.m., Luke Reed called the Wheeling Police and informed them that a gold Honda was traveling eastbound on I-70 between Claysville and West Alexander, Pennsylvania. Diane Schau also reported a gold car in the eastbound lane of I-70. The Pennsylvania State Police located Ms. Higgs's Honda broken down on the eastbound berm of I-70. They found petitioner nearby on foot and noted he matched the descriptions given by the various witnesses.

         Petitioner was indicted in Ohio County on one count of first-degree robbery and two counts of malicious assault.

         Christi Cooper-Lehki, DO, prepared petitioner's "Forensic Psychiatry Report: Competency to Stand Trial/Criminal Responsibility." Dr. Cooper-Lehki found that, despite petitioner's diagnosis of Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Type, and Polysubstance Dependence, he did not lack substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. Dr. Cooper-Lehki also found that petitioner had "a sufficient rational and factual understanding of the proceedings against him and ha[d] adequate ability to assist his attorney in his own defense."

         Thereafter, petitioner entered a Kennedy plea in which he agreed to plead guilty to one count of first-degree robbery pursuant to West Virginia Code § 61-2-12(a) and one count of unlawful assault pursuant to West Virginia Code § 61-2-10b(c). In his plea agreement, petitioner acknowledged that the penalty for first-degree robbery was not less than ten years in prison, and that the sentence for unlawful assault was one to five years in prison.

         At an April 6, 2018, hearing, the circuit court accepted petitioner's Kennedy plea and sentenced him to one to five years in prison for his plea to unlawful assault. However, the circuit court delayed sentencing on petitioner's first-degree robbery plea so that petitioner's probation officer could prepare a presentence investigation report.

         Following his guilty plea, petitioner participated in a court-ordered psychological evaluation "to provide the court with professional opinions for the purpose of sentencing." Dr. Robert Rush presented a detailed report to the court. Additionally, petitioner's probation officer prepared a presentence investigation report in which she recommended petitioner receive an eighty-year sentence given his substantial risk of reoffending. The probation officer noted in her report that she worked with petitioner for thirteen years during which he was arrested numerous times, had twelve misdemeanor and two felony convictions, and took his mother's car several times despite not having a valid driver's license. The probation officer also noted that petitioner is not compliant in taking his psychiatric medication and continues to use illegal drugs, which causes him to act out. The probation officer opined that petitioner's destructive behaviors are escalating, and that he is in need of correctional treatment. The probation officer asserted that when petitioner is incarcerated, prison staff manage his medications, which is imperative for his well-being; and he is away from the illegal substances that make him volatile. The probation officer further found that petitioner (1) has serious mental and emotional issues, and drug and alcohol addiction; (2) has been on probation about four times since 1997, but failed to benefit from probation each time; and (3) has twice been placed on probation with the condition that he complete a treatment court program, but was removed from the program both times. Finally, the probation officer found that petitioner assaulted another woman on June 15, 2016, and demanded money from her while she sat in her vehicle. In that case, petitioner pled guilty to simple assault and his probation was revoked.

         At an August 30, 2018, hearing, the circuit court sentenced petitioner to ninety years in prison for his first-degree robbery conviction, and ordered that the sentence be served consecutively to petitioner's sentence for unlawful assault. The circuit court entered its sentencing order on October 8, 2015. Petitioner now appeals his ninety-year sentence for first-degree robbery.

         "The Supreme Court of Appeals reviews sentencing orders . . . under a deferential abuse of discretion standard, unless the order violates statutory or constitutional commands." Syl. Pt. 1, in part, State v. Lucas, 201 W.Va. 271, 496 S.E.2d 221 (1997).

         On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court violated Article III, Section 5 of the West Virginia Constitution in sentencing petitioner to a ninety-year term of incarceration for his first-degree robbery conviction. That section provides, in pertinent part, that "[p]enalties shall be proportioned to the character and degree of the offence." Petitioner admits that a ninety-year sentence is permissible under the open-ended robbery statute; however, he argues that his sentence is so disproportionate that it shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity. Petitioner claims he will have to serve twenty-two years and six months in prison before he is eligible for parole, whereas a person convicted of murder in the first degree (with mercy) is eligible for parole in fifteen years. Petitioner also asserts that if he is not released on parole, he will serve forty-five years in prison with good time. Accordingly, he will be eighty-three years old when he is released from prison, well past the life expectancy of the average person. Therefore, petitioner avers that the circuit court imposed a life sentence. Finally, petitioner argues that his ninety-year sentence is disproportionate because he did not use a weapon when he assaulted Ms. Higgs. Petitioner points out that in State v. Cooper, 172 W.Va. 266, 304 S.E.2d 851 (1983), we reversed a forty-five-year sentence for first-degree robbery and suggested the appropriate sentence was the ten-year statutory minimum because the defendant did not use a weapon.

         Petitioner's sentence is not disproportionate under Article III, Section 5 of the Constitution of West Virginia. "Two tests are employed in determining whether a sentence is constitutionally disproportionate: a subjective test and an objective test. State v. Gibbs, 238 W.Va. 646, 659, 797 S.E.2d 623, 636 (2017)." Jeffrey v. Mutter, No. 17-0792, ...

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