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Williams v. Donahue

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

August 27, 2014


Assigned on Briefs April 1, 2014

Direct Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hardeman County No. CC-13-CR-143 Joseph H. Walker, III, Judge

Michael Williams, Whiteville, Tennessee, Pro Se.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter; and Clarence E. Lutz, Assistant Attorney General, for the respondent, State of Tennessee.

Jerry Smith, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Norma McGee Ogle and D. Kelly Thomas, Jr., JJ. joined.



Petitioner was convicted of the rape of an eighteen-year-old-girl in Memphis that occurred in 1999. As a result, he was sentenced to thirty-years as a violent offender. His conviction was affirmed on appeal. Michael Williams, 2002 WL 1349520, at *6.

Petitioner later sought post-conviction relief. After the denial of post-conviction relief, Petitioner sought habeas corpus relief. Specifically, Petitioner alleged that he does not qualify as a career criminal offender and that the judgment is void. The habeas corpus court dismissed the petition without a hearing. Petitioner appeals.


Petitioner insists that the habeas corpus court committed prejudicial error by failing to address his habeas corpus claim. Specifically, Petitioner claims that he is entitled to relief because he was improperly sentenced as a career offender. The State disagrees, arguing that Petitioner has not shown that he was sentenced as a career offender or that the sentence was illegal.

Pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-21-101(a), habeas corpus relief is only available if the petitioner is "imprisoned or restrained of liberty." The determination of whether to grant habeas corpus relief is a question of law. See Hickman v. State, 153 S.W.3d 16, 19 (Tenn. 2004). As such, we will review the habeas corpus court's findings de novo without a presumption of correctness. Id. Moreover, it is the petitioner's burden to demonstrate, by a preponderance of the evidence, "that the sentence is void or that the confinement is illegal." Wyatt v. State, 24 S.W.3d 319, 322 (Tenn. 2000).

Article I, section 15 of the Tennessee Constitution guarantees an accused the right to seek habeas corpus relief. See Taylor v. State, 995 S.W.2d 78, 83 (Tenn. 1999). A writ of habeas corpus is available only when it appears on the face of the judgment or the record that the convicting court was without jurisdiction to convict or sentence the defendant or that the defendant is still imprisoned despite the expiration of his sentence. Archer v. State, 851 S.W.2d 157, 164 (Tenn. 1993); Potts v. State, 833 S.W.2d 60, 62 (Tenn. 1992). In other words, habeas corpus relief may be sought only when the judgment is void, not merely voidable. See Taylor, 995 S.W.2d at 83. "A void judgment 'is one in which the judgment is facially invalid because the court lacked jurisdiction or authority to render the judgment or because the defendant's sentence has expired.' We have recognized that a sentence imposed in direct contravention of a statute, for example, is void and illegal." Stephenson v. Carlton, 28 S.W.3d 910, 911 (Tenn. 2000) (quoting Taylor, 955 S.W.2d at 83).

However, if after a review of the habeas petitioner's filings the habeas corpus court determines that the petitioner would not be entitled to relief, then the petition may be summarily dismissed. T. C.A. § 29-21-109; State ex rel. Byrd v. Bomar, 381 S.W.2d 280, 283 (Tenn. 1964). Further, a habeas corpus court may summarily dismiss a petition for writ of habeas corpus without the appointment of a lawyer and without an evidentiary hearing if there is nothing on the face of the judgment to indicate that the convictions addressed therein are void. Passarella v. State, 891 S.W.2d 619, 627 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1994).

In Cantrell v. Easterling, 346 S.W.3d 445 (Tenn. 2011), the Tennessee Supreme Court reminded us that an illegal sentence may be a ground for habeas corpus relief and discussed in detail the three categories of error that can appear in a judgment and the proper procedures for correcting those errors. The three categories of errors that can appear in a judgment are clerical errors, appealable errors, and fatal errors. Id. at 449-53. "An illegal sentence [containing fatal error] is one which is 'in direct contravention of the express provisions of [an applicable statute], and consequently [is] a nullity, '" or one which is "not authorized under the applicable statutory scheme." Id. at 452 (citations omitted). Only sentences containing "fatal errors, " and which are therefore illegal, may be addressed through the collateral proceeding of habeas corpus. Id. Examples of illegal sentences for which habeas corpus relief is permissible include: "(1) a sentence imposed pursuant to an inapplicable statutory scheme; (2) a sentence designating a [release eligibility date] where . . . prohibited by statute; ...

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