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Gunther v. Ames

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

November 8, 2019

Ronnie L. Gunther, Petitioner Below, Petitioner
v.
Donnie Ames, Superintendent, Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, Respondent Below, Respondent

          Wayne County 15-C-223

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Ronnie L. Gunther, by counsel Timothy Rosinsky, appeals the April 11, 2018, order of the Circuit Court of Wayne County denying his petition for writ of habeas corpus. Respondent Donnie Ames, Superintendent, Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, [1] by counsel Caleb A. Ellis, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court abused its discretion in denying his petition for writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that he received ineffective assistance of counsel and that said assistance was so deficient he was induced to enter a guilty plea.

         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.

         In November of 2013, petitioner attended a social gathering in Wayne County, West Virginia. At the gathering, petitioner and another guest, Mr. Ward, began to argue, which ultimately led to petitioner shooting Mr. Ward at least twice. Mr. Ward ("the victim") died as a result of the wounds. Petitioner returned to his home and waited for police. Once law enforcement arrived, petitioner stated that he shot the victim because the victim abused women and needed to be "taxed." In March of 2014, petitioner was indicted for first-degree murder, and the Wayne County Public Defenders' office was appointed as petitioner's counsel. Three attorneys from this office, Ms. Maynard, Mr. Wible, and Ms. Preece (collectively, "counsel"), were assigned as counsel. Counsel filed several pretrial motions on petitioner's behalf, on which the circuit court held a pre-trial hearing in May of 2014. Critically, the circuit court denied petitioner's motion to suppress his inculpatory statements to law enforcement.

         In August of 2014, petitioner filed a pro se motion for appointment of new counsel, and the circuit court held a hearing on the motion. Petitioner asserted that he "bumped heads" with his counsel and took particular issue with Ms. Maynard's lack of murder trial experience. Petitioner acknowledged that he refused to meet with Ms. Maynard several times during her visits to the regional jail. Additionally, petitioner stated that his counsel would not consider his self-defense claim and attempted to persuade him to accept a plea. Ultimately, the circuit court denied petitioner's motion. In response, petitioner stated, "I won't talk to them no more. After today, this is the last time I talk to them." Petitioner's trial was set for September of 2014.

         Petitioner's counsel sent a letter to petitioner in the days leading up to his trial. In the letter, Ms. Maynard indicated her willingness to pursue petitioner's self-defense claim, but, based on the evidence available, advised the success of the defense would be limited. Petitioner's self-defense claim was based on his assertion that the victim brandished a knife prior to the shooting. However, as Ms. Maynard wrote in the letter, no evidence supported this assertion. Witnesses did not observe a knife, law enforcement did not recover a knife from the victim's body or the scene, and the assertion was contrary to petitioner's initial statements to law enforcement. Petitioner believed his wife would testify that she observed a knife, but the State obtained a recorded phone call during which petitioner "strongly coached" his wife on her testimony and provided her a detailed description of the knife.[2] Ms. Maynard advised petitioner to accept the State's plea offer of first-degree murder, with mercy, and a condition not to pursue recidivist charges.

         Petitioner was transported for trial in September of 2014 and, ultimately, accepted the State's plea offer. In petitioner's "Statement in Support of Guilty Plea" forms, he indicated that he was unsatisfied with his counsel, but also stated he did not wish to discuss the matter with the circuit court. Nevertheless, the circuit court questioned petitioner regarding his misgivings with his counsel. When the circuit court asked him directly, petitioner stated he had no complaints with his counsel. The circuit court concluded that petitioner entered into the plea agreement knowingly and voluntarily and accepted his guilty plea. Petitioner was sentenced the same day to life in prison, with mercy. The circuit court memorialized the decision in its October 4, 2014, order. Petitioner did not appeal that order.

         Petitioner, by newly appointed counsel, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in November of 2016. The circuit court held an omnibus hearing in August of 2017. Petitioner, his brother, and Ms. Maynard testified. Petitioner's brother testified that he offered his help to defense counsel, but admitted that he was not present at the scene of the crime and did not know the victim. Petitioner's testimony highlighted his tumultuous relationship with his counsel. Petitioner testified that he tried to assert his self-defense theory to counsel, but "they wasn't having none of it." Petitioner testified that the victim was a disreputable gentleman in the community, who "liked to scrap" and was known to carry a knife.[3]

         Despite petitioner's assertions that counsel never discussed the State's evidence against him, he referenced witness statements that were taken by law enforcement and included in the State's discovery. One such statement placed a witness at the scene, and petitioner noted he observed someone in a nearby garage, but could not recognize the person. However, petitioner also asserted that at the time of the shooting, only he and the victim were present. Petitioner further testified that, the day of the trial, counsel informed petitioner that his wife, whom he relied on to support his self-defense claim, would not testify because she was afraid of him. On cross-examination, petitioner acknowledged the timeline of the events that he testified to during his plea hearing: petitioner and four other individuals were drinking; he entered into an argument with the victim; and he shot the victim. When asked during the plea hearing if he was threatened by the victim, petitioner stated, "no" and "I was drunk" as justification for the shooting. During his omnibus hearing testimony, petitioner frequently asserted that he was "tore up" and under great emotional distress the day of his expected trial, but, ultimately, acknowledged that his testimony during the plea hearing was truthful, with the exception that he was unsatisfied with his lawyers.[4]

         Ms. Maynard testified that a thorough investigation was conducted by her office's private investigator, who produced a report that summarized his work. However, despite this investigation, no evidence was uncovered that the victim possessed a knife at the time of the shooting. In fact, counsel's investigation revealed petitioner as the aggressor. Ms. Maynard also testified that petitioner's wife's credibility would be jeopardized by the recorded calls with petitioner. Accordingly, Ms. Maynard decided not to present the wife's testimony. Ms. Maynard testified that, based on these factors, she recommended that petitioner accept the State's plea offer and believed it was in his best interest.

         The circuit court entered an order denying petitioner's petition for writ of habeas corpus in April of 2018. The court found that counsel properly investigated petitioner's self-defense claim and correctly identified the serious issues with that defense. The court concluded that counsel's advice that petitioner's self-defense claim was a losing argument was reasonable under an objective standard and denied relief upon this claim. Further, the court considered petitioner's claim that, due to counsel's ineffective assistance, his only option to enter a guilty plea, but found that the advice provided by his counsel did not fall below an objective standard of reasonableness. Further, the circuit court noted petitioner's multiple acknowledgements during the plea hearing that he decided to enter into the plea agreement and was satisfied with his decision. Accordingly, petitioner was denied relief on this basis as well.[5] Petitioner now appeals the circuit court's April 11, 2018, order.

         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 ...

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