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Pires v. Commissioner of Correction

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

June 20, 2017


          Argued Date: January 17, 2017

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of Tolland, Oliver, J.

          Peter Tsimbidaros, for the appellant (petitioner).

          Paul J. Narducci, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, was Michael L. Regan, state's attorney, for the appellee (respondent).

          Sheldon, Beach and Pellegrino, Js.


          BEACH, J.

          The petitioner, Michael Pires, Sr., appeals from the judgment of the habeas court denying his amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus. He claims that the habeas court erred in failing to conclude that his trial lawyers provided ineffective assistance by failing to adequately convey to the trial court his desire to represent himself.[1] We affirm the judgment of the habeas court.[2]

         The following facts and procedural history, drawn from the Supreme Court's opinion in the petitioner's direct appeal; see State v. Pires, 310 Conn. 222, 77 A.3d 87 (2013); are relevant to this appeal. The petitioner was charged with murder in connection with a 2004 drug related homicide. Id., 225. After several unsuccessful attempts to dismiss his trial counsel, Special Public Defender Linda Sullivan, the petitioner and Sullivan attended a hearing on December 20, 2005, before the trial court, Handy, J. Id., 225-26. During the hearing, Sullivan informed Judge Handy that the petitioner had refused to discuss the case with her. Id., 233. The petitioner then indicated that he wanted to ‘‘ ‘fire' '' Sullivan. Id., 233-34. After explaining to the petitioner that he was entitled to an attorney but not necessarily to an attorney of his choice, Judge Handy instructed the petitioner and Sullivan to convene privately, work things out, and then return to the courtroom. Id., 234-35. When they returned, Sullivan told Judge Handy: ‘‘Well, I did go downstairs and attempt to talk to [the petitioner]. He did want to discuss strategy with me. He indicated now that he wishes to represent himself in this matter. I informed him that I didn't think Your Honor was going to allow him to represent himself on a murder charge simply because that would be much too dangerous and it would not be in his best interest. And that's about where we stand, Your Honor.'' (Emphasis altered; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 235. The petitioner did not reiterate to the court a desire to represent himself, nor did Judge Handy inquire further into the matter. Id.

         Sullivan subsequently filed a motion to withdraw as counsel and, on March 8, 2006, Judge Handy granted her motion. Judge Handy appointed attorneys Bruce Sturman and Kevin Barrs to represent the petitioner. Id., 235. The petitioner filed a pro se motion to dismiss Sturman and Barrs at the start of trial on August 2, 2006, but withdrew the motion the following day. Id., 226. Following a jury trial, the petitioner was convicted of murder.

         Prior to sentencing, the petitioner filed a handwritten ‘‘motion to dismiss, '' which the trial court, Schimelman, J., addressed at the October 13, 2006 sentencing hearing. Id., 250. During argument on the motion, the petitioner levied complaints about the evidence and facts of the case and indicated that he wanted to ‘‘dismiss'' Barrs and Sturman prior to the sentencing portion of the hearing. Id. Judge Schimelman, interpreting the petitioner's motion as a request for self-representation, denied the motion[3] and sentenced the petitioner to sixty years imprisonment. Id., 225, 250-51. The Supreme Court upheld the petitioner's conviction on direct appeal.[4] Id., 255.

         Thereafter, the petitioner filed an amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging a single claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The petitioner alleged that he was represented at trial by Sullivan, Sturman, and Barrs, and that their ‘‘performance was deficient because they failed to adequately convey to the court that the petitioner wished to represent himself.'' The petition further alleged that there is a reasonable probability that, ‘‘but for the petitioner's trial counsel's deficient performance, '' the result of the criminal proceedings would have been different.

         The habeas court held a trial on October 31, 2014, at which Sullivan, Sturman, and Barrs testified. The petitioner did not testify. The habeas court denied the petition in a memorandum of decision filed January 16, 2015. After concluding that the petitioner's ineffective assistance claim was collaterally estopped by the Supreme Court's decision on direct appeal; see footnote 2 of this opinion; the habeas court also rejected the claim on the merits. Applying the two-pronged test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), the habeas court found that the petitioner's trial counsel did not perform deficiently by failing adequately to inform the trial court of his desire for self-representation.[5] The habeas court reasoned that the record reflected that the petitioner was concerned not with representing himself, but, rather, with being assigned counsel of his choosing, obtaining discovery, meeting with his attorneys, addressing the court, and claiming that various court personnel were conspiring against him. Thus, the habeas court concluded that trial counsel did not perform deficiently because, other than at sentencing, ‘‘there was no clear and unequivocal invocation for them to convey to the court . . . .'' Following a grant of certification to appeal, this appeal followed.

         The petitioner claims that the habeas court erred in concluding that he did not receive ineffective assistance of counsel. We disagree.

         ‘‘The habeas court is afforded broad discretion in making its factual findings, and those findings will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous. . . . Historical facts constitute a recital of external events and the credibility of their narrators. . . . Accordingly, [t]he habeas judge, as the trier offacts, is the sole arbiter of the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given to their testimony. . . . The application of the habeas court's factual findings to the pertinent legal standard, however, presents a mixed question of law and fact, which is subject to ...

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