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State v. Simpson

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

November 1, 2016

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
EARL SIMPSON

          Argued September 9, 2016

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven, Clifford, J.

          Deren Manasevit, assigned counsel, for the appellant (defendant).

          James M. Ralls, assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Michael Dearington, former state's attorney, and Brett R. Aiello, special deputy assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

          Beach, Keller and Bear, Js.

          OPINION

          KELLER, J.

         Following the trial court's acceptance of his guilty plea under the Alford doctrine, [1] the defendant, Earl Simpson, was convicted of murder in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-54a (a) and 53a-8.[2] The defendant now appeals from the judgment, claiming that: (1) on the basis of facts and circumstances that were apparent to the court at the time of the plea and which undermined a finding that the defendant understood the nature of the charge at issue, the court abused its discretion by denying the defendant's motion to withdraw his plea prior to sentencing and, in the alternative, abused its discretion by failing to conduct an evidentiary hearing on the motion; (2) the court violated the defendant's right to counsel by failing to address the grievances that the defendant raised to the court concerning his attorney and, in the alternative, abused its discretion by failing to inquire with respect to such complaints; and (3) the court abused its discretion by accepting the plea and that its acceptance of the plea violated the defendant's right to due process. We agree with the defendant that the court improperly failed to conduct an evidentiary hearing with respect to his motion to withdraw his plea and failed to undertake a necessary inquiry with respect to his complaints concerning his attorney. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings with respect to those issues.

         The following undisputed facts, which may be gleaned from the record of the underlying proceedings, are relevant to the claims raised in the present appeal. The defendant, represented by counsel, entered an Alford plea in this case on September 19, 2014. The state, by way of a long form information, filed on June 29, 2012, [3] charged the defendant in count one with felony murder under General Statutes §§ 53a-54c and 53a-8, in count two with murder as an accessory under §§ 53a-54a (a) and 53a-8, and in count three with robbery or attempt to commit robbery in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-134 (a) (1). Count two stated: ‘‘And the [State's Attorney for the Judicial District of New Haven] further accuses [the defendant] of Murder and charges that at the City of New Haven, on or about the 9th day of July, 2011, at approximately 6:00 a.m., in the area of Howard and Putnam Streets, the said [defendant] did, with intent to cause the death of another person, to wit: John Claude James, did shoot such person and caused the death of such person, said conduct being in violation of [§] 53a-54a (a) and 53a-8 of the Connecticut General Statutes.''

         At the plea canvass, the prosecutor stated that it was his understanding that the defendant was prepared to enter an Alford plea ‘‘on the second count of the information charging murder.'' The court clerk, [4] addressing the defendant, stated in relevant part: ‘‘[Y]ou've been charged in the second count with murder in violation of Section 53a-54a of the Connecticut General Statutes. How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?'' The defendant replied, ‘‘Guilty.'' The court acknowledged that the plea was made under the Alford doctrine. Thereafter, the defendant admitted that he had violated his probation in violation of General Statutes § 53a-32.

         The prosecutor addressed the court to set forth the factual basis underlying the plea with respect to the murder count, as follows: ‘‘[W]ith respect to the plea on the second count of murder, the state is prepared to prove the following facts: On July 9, 2011, at about 6 p.m., New Haven police officers responded to the area of Howard Avenue and Putnam Street based upon a report of shots fired. They located the body of John Claude James, age twenty-six. It was evident to them that he had been shot several times. A later autopsy determined that he had been shot five times in the back area. All but one bullet had exited the body. They were never located.

         ‘‘During the investigation, a witness stated she was in her apartment nearby. Moments after hearing the shots, Cody Franklin and the defendant . . . ran into her apartment. Franklin said that he had just shot someone. The witness also said [the defendant] offered her weed to say that he and Franklin had not been in her apartment. [The defendant] then called his sister, Isis Hargrove, asking her to pick them up. Franklin and the defendant . . . were a short time later seen getting into Isis' car and leaving the area. Also, a witness told police he saw Franklin shoot Mr. James and [the defendant] was with Franklin at the time.

         ‘‘The crime scene investigation resulted in the location of six shell casings found in the immediate area where witnesses saw the shots being fired. A ballistics examination disclosed that five casings had been ejected from the same gun, while the sixth casing was ejected from a different gun. Such [evidence] is clearly consistent with there being two shooters. Another witness told police that he saw Franklin and [the defendant] together just before the shooting and saw Mr. Franklin fire shots, but he did not admit that he had seen [the defendant] fire any shots.

         ‘‘On May 19, 2014, the defendant . . . was being interviewed by a member of the State's Attorney's Office in Waterbury in connection with another shooting. When asked about the previous shooting of John Claude James, the defendant . . . admitted that he was one of the shooters.''

         Thereafter, the court canvassed the defendant with respect to his pleas. During the canvass, the defendant stated that he was not under the influence of any alcohol, drugs or medication; he had had a sufficient opportunity prior to the plea canvass to discuss his pleas with counsel; he was satisfied with his counsel's advice; he was entering his ‘‘guilty plea'' and his ‘‘probation plea'' voluntarily; and nobody was forcing or threatening him to enter the pleas. The defendant stated that he understood the rights he was giving up by entering his pleas, including his right against compulsory self-incrimination, his right to a trial by jury, and his right to confront his accusers.

         The following colloquy between the court and the defendant ensued:

‘‘The Court: A person violates their probation when they are on probation and they violate the terms of it, and you could have gotten up to three years on that. Do you understand that?
‘‘[The Defendant]: Yes.
‘‘The Court: Do you agree you violated your probation?
‘‘[The Defendant]: Yes.
‘‘The Court: And on that, I'm going to terminate [probation] at the time of sentencing. On the crime of murder, the state would have to prove that with the intent to cause the death of another person, you caused the death of such person or of a third person, and that is punishable by up to sixty years in prison, twenty-five years at the minimum or nonsuspendable portion. Do you understand that?
‘‘[The Defendant]: Yes.''

         The court proceeded to ask the defendant if he understood the nature of an Alford plea and if he understood the sentence to which he was exposed as well as the agreement in place with the state for a sentence of thirty-two and one-half years imprisonment, with a twenty-five year minimum sentence. The defendant stated that he understood these matters and that no additional promises had been made to him with respect to the pleas. The court stated: ‘‘Once I accept these pleas, you can't change your mind later on unless there's some valid legal reason. Do you understand that?'' The defendant replied affirmatively. At the conclusion of the canvass, the defendant stated that he had understood the questions directed to him by the court and that there was nothing that he wished to raise to the court or his attorney prior to the court's acceptance of the pleas.

         The court accepted the defendant's pleas, finding that they were ‘‘understandably made with the assistance of competent counsel.'' The court found that the defendant was ‘‘guilty'' and that he had violated his probation. The court then continued the matter to a later date.

         By handwritten letter dated October 27, 2014, and addressed to the court, the defendant stated that he wanted to withdraw his plea and that he desired a new attorney. In relevant part, the letter, signed by the defendant, stated: ‘‘I request to withdraw my guilty plea. I have a legitimate claim. I am not guilty of murder. I am claiming ineffective counsel. I was not explained all elements of the crime of murder. There was no testimony at Cody Franklin's trial that I assisted, aided, or conspiracy. There was no intent on my part. The mere fact that I did not assist and help Cody Franklin from the testimony of the state witnesses is enough to have the charges against me dismissed.

         ‘‘Had my attorney investigated and told me all the facts I wouldn't have pled guilty to a charge that I didn't commit. I felt pressured to take the plea because I was told I had ‘no chance' of winning [at] trial. Individuals trying to say I confessed to things I did not. I didn't sign anything or state anything on the record. (Absent this so-called confession.)

         ‘‘I need a new attorney and I need for him to request a ‘Motion to Vacate' and a ‘evidentiary hearing.' My counsel also failed to file a ‘Motion to Dismiss' the murder charges after the Cody Franklin trial. Please look into this matter.''

         Additionally, the defendant wrote: ‘‘My attorney never told me the difference between accessory after the fact and obstruction of justice, and aiding and abetting. I never and did not encourage, and or facilitate or participate in the [crime] by the testimony of the state witness. I had ‘no' knowledge that anyone was going to kill anyone. I request a new attorney and to withdraw my plea. Also a evidence hearing on this matter. Ineffective assistance and evidence hearing. Please withdraw my plea. I couldn't make an intelligent decision. Please look into this matter.''

         On December 4, 2014, through counsel, the defendant filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea pursuant to Practice Book §§ 39-26 and 39-27. In relevant part, the motion stated: ‘‘In subsequent written and oral communications between the defendant and undersigned counsel, the defendant has indicated he did not possess knowledge or fully understand the sentence that could be imposed or the consequences thereto at the time he entered the guilty plea.'' The state filed a written opposition to the defendant's motion. Therein, the state asserted that the transcript of the plea canvass of September 19, 2014, reflected that, in compliance with Practice Book § 39-19, the court addressed the defendant with regard to the mandatory minimum sentence and maximum possible sentence on the charge. The state directed the court's attention to the portion of the transcript in which the court indicated, and the defendant verbally acknowledged, that the total sentence exposure on the charges of murder and violation of probation was sixty-three years' incarceration, with twenty-five years being nonsuspendable. Moreover, the state argued, the transcript reflected that the defendant understood that, pursuant to the plea agreement, he would serve a minimum term of incarceration of twenty-five years and a maximum term of incarceration of thirty-two and one-half years. The state argued that the plea transcript reflected that the defendant understood the sentence to be imposed, that the defendant's motion should be denied, and that an evidentiary hearing on the motion was not necessary.

         By a second handwritten letter, dated December 8, 2014, and addressed to the court, the defendant renewed his request to withdraw his plea and for new counsel. The letter, signed by the defendant, stated in relevant part: ‘‘[T]here are a few things I would like to bring to your attention. First and foremost, I was in (special aid) in school and didn't have enough time to be fully explained anything about my charges. I just came and it was on the table. (Accept or reject.) My lawyer never explained the full conditions to . . . such charge I was supposed to plea to in which any evidence points to me as an accessory to. I never had a legal visit or anything. I would really like to take this plea back. My lawyer talked me into something I didn't want to do. I was confused. When I came to court I've told him this personally and that I would like a new lawyer. (Ineffective counsel.) He didn't put any motions in to try to get any hearings when I asked for some. When I was explained about my charge after the fact I told him to withdraw my plea. He wants to wait until after the last minute going against my wishes. This is my life on the line and I would like to withdraw and go to trial. Because I'm not responsible for this charge that's against me. Please I would really appreciate it a lot. Also requesting a new lawyer. I told my old lawyer, Thomas Farver, [that] I wanted to request a new one and I don't think he put it in and went around what I said. I have [a] court [appearance] on December 19, 2014 that is supposed to be a sentencing date. I really hope you grant the motion for my plea to be withdrawn.''

         The defendant, represented by counsel, appeared in court on December 19, 2014, for sentencing. At the beginning of the hearing, the court stated: ‘‘I know the defendant had sent some letters to me which seemed to indicate that, possibly, he was interested in withdrawing his plea.''[5] The court did not inquire into the defendant's claim that he had not been apprised of the nature of the charge to which he had pleaded guilty. The court, however, referred to the motion to withdraw that was filed on the defendant's behalf by his attorney. The following colloquy then occurred:

‘‘The Court: So, I guess I should . . . ask [the defendant] . . . is he still pursuing a motion to withdraw this plea? . . .
‘‘[The Defendant]: Mm-hm. Yes.
‘‘The Court: All right. And the basis I just read that your lawyer put in [the motion to withdraw the plea], is that . . . you did not possess knowledge or fully understand the sentence or the consequences thereto?
‘‘[The Defendant]: Yes.
‘‘The Court: All right. Do you want . . . to explain it any more than that? Why is it you . . . want to withdraw your plea?
‘‘[The Defendant]: Why do I want to-because I feel like everything wasn't explained. It was, like, as soon as I got to court, boom, it's just like . . . take this right now. You go to trial, you losing. It was like I was forced to take it. I felt like I was forced to take the plea.
‘‘The Court: And who forced you to take the plea; the system, you mean, or the court or-
‘‘[The Defendant]: No, my lawyer.
‘‘The Court: Your lawyer, how did he force you?
‘‘[The Defendant]: It's like, he told me right there, if I don't take it . . . I'm gonna lose; ...

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