Assigned on Briefs October 21, 2014 at Knoxville
Appeal from the Criminal Court for Shelby County No. 12-05815 Chris Craft, Judge
Terrell L. Tooten, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Abraham Mitchell.
Robert E. Cooper, Attorney General and Reporter; Meredith DeVault, Senior Counsel; Amy P. Weirich, District Attorney General; and Lora Fowler, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.
Robert L. Holloway. Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which James Curwood Witt, Jr., and D. Kelly Thomas, Jr., JJ., joined.
ROBERT L. HOLLOWAY, JR., JUDGE
I. Factual and Procedural Background
The Petitioner was originally charged with vandalism over $10, 000, attempted theft of property valued over $1, 000, resisting official detention, and evading arrest in connection with the vandalism of several roof-top air conditioning units. When the Petitioner was arrested, he was standing about 20 feet from a ladder leading up to the roof, and he told the officers he was the "look-out man."
The Petitioner was offered several plea agreements in this case. In general sessions court, the State offered to have the Petitioner plead guilty in exchange for a two-year sentence to serve. The Petitioner refused the offer and had a preliminary hearing. Once the case was in criminal court, the State offered to let the Petitioner plead guilty on the vandalism over $10, 000 and attempted theft charges in exchange for an effective ten-year sentence as a Range II offender. Trial counsel was able to negotiate the plea offer down to six years as a Range II offender and subsequently down to a "today only" offer of four years as a Range II offender. That offer was later amended to four years as a Range I offender to fit within the sentencing guidelines. The Petitioner ultimately accepted this offer and was sentenced to an effective term of four years as a Range I offender for the vandalism and attempted theft charges, and a nolle prosequi was entered on the remaining charges.
After his plea, the Petitioner filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief. New counsel was appointed, and an amended petition was filed. In his petition for post-conviction relief, the Petitioner argued that he was confused during the plea colloquy, and therefore his plea was involuntary and unknowing. He further argued that his trial counsel coerced him into pleading guilty and that trial counsel was ineffective. Additionally, the Petitioner argued that he was denied due process because the court should have taken extra care to ensure that the Petitioner understood the plea agreement once the Petitioner informed the court that he could not read. After a hearing, the post-conviction court denied post-conviction relief. This timely appeal followed.
Guilty Plea Submission Hearing
On the morning of the plea proceedings, trial counsel conducted a voir dire examination with the Petitioner. During the examination, the Petitioner stated that he wished to ask the court a few questions. He said that he did not understand why he should plead guilty when the arresting officer testified at the preliminary hearing that he did not witness the Petitioner commit any crime. The Petitioner said he felt like he was being "railroaded" and maintained that he was innocent. Additionally, he informed the court that he could not read. The court advised the Petitioner that he should refuse the plea offer and take his case to trial if he wanted to challenge the State's evidence. At this point, trial counsel informed the court that the four-year plea offer would expire at the end of the day. The Petitioner asked to speak with his attorney, and the court recessed for lunch.
During the recess, trial counsel again explained to the Petitioner that the offer of four years as a Range II offender would expire at the end of the day, and the Petitioner elected to take the plea. However, as trial counsel was completing the paperwork, he discovered that a sentence of four years as a Range II offender would not fit within the sentencing guidelines for the Petitioner's charges. Trial counsel informed the State of this problem, and the State offered a sentence of four years as a Range I offender. Trial counsel explained this new offer to the Petitioner, and the Petitioner chose to accept the offer.
When court reconvened, the announced plea agreement was identical to the plea agreement trial counsel had explained to the Petitioner after he informed the State about the problems with the sentencing guidelines. The State provided a factual basis for the plea, and the court conducted a plea colloquy with the Petitioner. The court conducted a standard plea colloquy, although not verbatim from the waiver, and the Petitioner stated that he understood he was giving up each right. The Petitioner confirmed that he wished to enter a guilty plea. Additionally, the Petitioner stated that he understood the plea and was entering his plea voluntarily. The court asked whether anyone was trying to "railroad" the Petitioner, and the Petitioner responded in the negative.
The Post-Conviction Relief Hearing
At the post-conviction hearing, the Petitioner gave lengthy testimony, often contradicting himself. The Petitioner testified he had wanted to take his case to trial because the arresting officer testified at the preliminary hearing that he had not seen the Petitioner on top of the roof, and he contended that the officer's testimony supported his claim of innocence. The Petitioner stated that he reviewed the transcript and the rest of the discovery in the case with trial counsel, and trial counsel told the Petitioner that the only evidence the State had against him was the statement the Petitioner made to police about being the "lookout man." The Petitioner informed trial counsel that he did not believe that his statement to the police was an admission of guilt, and he asked trial counsel to negotiate a plea deal of two years "because [the Petitioner] had already spent that time in." Trial counsel tried but was unable to negotiate a plea agreement with a two-year sentence.
The Petitioner testified that he did not think the four-year offer was acceptable because the State "didn't have no evidence on [him]." He testified that he believed he would win the case if he took it to trial. The Petitioner told trial counsel that he did not agree with the offer and wanted to take his case to trial when trial counsel reviewed the plea paperwork with him. He also testified that he told the court the same thing during his first voir dire examination. The Petitioner recalled the court's telling him after the recess that they were dealing with the same offer as the one that had been offered to the Petitioner before the lunch recess. The Petitioner testified that the court reviewed the plea wavier with him, but he could not recall if the court read the plea waiver to him verbatim. He further testified that, since he could not read very well, he was relying on what the trial court and trial counsel told him. He stated that he agreed to take the plea because "I thought I was going to be railroaded." The Petitioner testified that he would have taken his case to trial if he had understood what was going on.
On cross-examination, the Petitioner testified that he could not read, but he admitted that he had written several letters to trial counsel and to the court and confirmed that the letters were in his handwriting. He stated that someone helped him spell the words, but he maintained that he knew how to write and no one told him what to write in the letters.
He also acknowledged that trial counsel was able to negotiate the plea offer from ten years as a Range II offender to four years as a Range I offender. He claimed that he did not know who trial counsel spoke to when he negotiated the plea deal, but when confronted with a copy of statements he made during the plea colloquy, the Petitioner admitted that he knew the plea offers came from the State. Further, he admitted that he had pleaded guilty on 12 prior occasions and was familiar with the plea process.
The Petitioner also acknowledged that the court asked him whether he felt someone was trying to "railroad" him during the plea colloquy and that he said he did not. However, he stated that he thought if he refused the plea "they'd make me take my case to trial." He was reluctant to do so because trial counsel had told him a jury would convict him because of the statement he made to the police claiming he was the "look-out man." He claimed that trial counsel coerced him into taking the plea, but he could not say what trial counsel did to coerce him. The Petitioner maintained that, had trial counsel "been doing his job, " his case would not have gotten this far and he would be serving no time. The Petitioner claimed that trial counsel should have shown the prosecutor the transcript from the preliminary hearing and the arresting officers' affidavits because "the evidence [would] speak for itself."
The Petitioner also admitted that he had refused other plea offers from the State—one of which would have allowed him to plead guilty in exchange for a two-year sentence. He stated that he refused those plea offers because he did not want to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit. However, he testified that he chose to take the offer of four years as a Range I offender because trial counsel told him that he would lose the case at trial and he would be sentenced to serve 20 years. However, the Petitioner also testified that he did not believe he would lose the case at trial. The Petitioner maintained that trial counsel manipulated him into taking the plea because he did not understand what was going on.
On redirect, the Petitioner stated that he believed the evidence did not support trial counsel's claim that he would lose at trial, and he was confused by trial counsel's assertion. He admitted that he told the court he was entering the plea knowingly and voluntarily, but he maintained that he was trying to communicate to the court that he did not in fact understand the plea. He stated he felt that no one wanted to hear his side of the story, and if the court and the State had looked at his evidence, the case would have "never came this far."
On recross-examination, the Petitioner admitted that he asked trial counsel to try to negotiate a three-year plea deal on the date of the plea colloquy, and trial counsel attempted to negotiate a three-year plea deal. He further stated that he took the four-year plea deal because he did not want to take the chance that he may lose at trial and be sentenced to more than four years. However, he maintained that he was coerced into that decision because trial counsel told him he would be convicted at trial due to the fact he told police he was the "look-out man."
Trial counsel testified that once he was assigned to the Petitioner's case he filed a Motion for Discovery and received a discovery file from the State. He also requested a copy of the preliminary hearing transcript and the crime scene photos, and he provided all of this material to the Petitioner. He further testified that he met ...