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Clinton S. v. Commissioner of Correction

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

July 18, 2017

CLINTON S.[*]
v.
COMMISSIONER OF CORRECTION

          Argued Date: March 9, 2017

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

         Procedural History

         Amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Tolland, and tried to the court, Oliver, J.; judgment denying the petition; thereafter, the court denied the petition for certification to appeal, and the petitioner appealed to this court. Appeal dismissed.

          Vishal K. Garg, for the appellant (petitioner).

          Marjorie Allen Dauster, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Patrick J. Griffin, state's attorney, and Adrienne Russo, deputy assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (respondent).

          Keller, Mullins and Harper, Js.

         Syllabus

         The petitioner, who had been convicted of sexual assault in the first degree and sexual assault in the third degree, sought a writ of habeas corpus claiming that his defense counsel had rendered ineffective assistance by failing to adduce certain evidence at his criminal trial, which he alleged caused him to plead guilty under the Alford doctrine during jury deliberations following that trial. At his criminal trial, defense counsel sought to challenge the credibility of the victim, who was the defendant's stepdaughter, regarding her motivation to fabricate the allegations. In his petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the petitioner alleged that defense counsel had failed to present evidence that the victim had disclosed the assault to a witness, G, only after G told the victim that the petitioner, who was a registered sex offender, would go to jail if he had touched the victim inappropriately. Moreover, the petitioner alleged that defense counsel failed to adequately investigate and present evidence of his employment history and that of M, the victim's mother, which he claimed would have revealed that he had no opportunity to assault the victim at the time and place she claimed. The habeas court denied the petition and denied the petition for certification to appeal, from which the petitioner appealed to this court.

         Held:

         1. The habeas court did not abuse its discretion in denying the petition for certification to appeal on the basis of defense counsel's failure to introduce evidence of the conversation between the victim and G, the petitioner having failed to demonstrate that defense counsel's performance was deficient in that regard; the decision to not present the evidence of the conversation between G and the victim was a matter of sound trial strategy, as defense counsel had successfully moved to exclude evidence of the petitioner's criminal history and his status as a registered sex offender and introducing evidence of the victim's conversation with G would have opened the door to the jury hearing that damaging evidence, and this court declined to second guess that strategic decision.

         2. The petitioner failed to demonstrate that the issues that he raised on appeal concerning defense counsel's alleged failure to investigate and present evidence concerning his or M's work history were debatable among jurists of reasoner raised questions that deserved encouragement to proceed further; contrary to the petitioner's assertion that he would not have pleaded guilty had the evidence of his work history been presented at trial because the evidence would have undermined the victim's claim that the assaults happened ‘‘all of the time, '' there was ample evidence before the jury that the petitioner had innumerable opportunities to be alone with the victim, and evidence of the petitioner's employment history would have confirmed rather than refuted that evidence, as the alleged assaults occurred during divers dates within a broad timeframe and, accordingly, defense counsel's performance was not deficient; although the habeas court misstated the applicable prejudice standard when determining whether he was prejudiced by defense counsel's failure to produce evidence of M's employment records, the habeas court properly made the determination that that evidence would not have changed the outcome of the petitioner's criminal trial had the jury finished its deliberations, in light of M's testimony, which the habeas court found to be credible, that the petitioner had numerous opportunities to be alone with the victim.

          OPINION

          MULLINS, J.

         The petitioner, Clinton S., appeals following the denial of his petition for certification to appeal from the judgment of the habeas court denying his amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus. On appeal, the petitioner claims that the habeas court abused its discretion in denying his petition for certification to appeal because the record established that his criminal trial counsel had rendered ineffective assistance by (1) failing to present evidence of an alternative exculpatory explanation for the allegations made by the victim and (2) failing to investigate adequately and present evidence of the employment records of the petitioner and his wife, M. Additionally, in connection with the claim regarding M.'s employment records, the petitioner claims that the habeas court applied the wrong standard with respect to whether he was prejudiced by counsel's allegedly deficient performance. We conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion in denying the petition for certification to appeal. Accordingly, we dismiss the appeal.

         The record discloses the following relevant facts. The petitioner was charged with several offenses, including sexual assault in the first degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-70 (a) (1) and sexual assault in the third degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-72a (a) (1). The victim, who M's daughter and the petitioner's stepchild, alleged that the petitioner sexually assaulted her between July, 2003, and January, 2005. She claimed that the assaults occurred when she arrived home from school around 2:45 p.m. and that it happened ‘‘basically all the time.'' The victim stated that, during the relevant time period, the petitioner was the only one home and that, if her siblings were home, the petitioner would lock them in a bedroom and tell them not to come out until told to do so.

         The victim reported the sexual assaults to Luz Garcia. The victim and Garcia met through the New Haven Police Department's youth program, for which Garcia was the coordinator. On January 24, 2006, the victim and Garcia engaged in a conversation in which the victim disclosed to Garcia that the petitioner had sexually assaulted her. Garcia told the victim that the petitioner was a registered sex offender and that if the petitioner ever touched her inappropriately, he would go to jail. Garcia reported the abuse to the police.

         At trial, the petitioner was represented by Attorneys Scott Jones and Tejas Bhatt. He elected a jury trial. Trial commenced on July 23, 2009. Evidence closed on July 28, 2009. Then, on July 31, 2009, the third day of jury deliberations and before the jury had reached a verdict, the petitioner decided to enter a guilty plea under the Alford[1] doctrine to the charges of sexual assault in the first degree and sexual assault in the third degree.

         In response to questions by the trial court, the petitioner stated that he understood that he could not revoke his plea, that he was satisfied with his representation, and that he was pleading guilty voluntarily. When asked by the trial court one final time whether he was sure that he wanted to plead guilty, the petitioner responded, ‘‘Your Honor, I don't have a choice.'' In response, the trial court stated, ‘‘You don't have a choice because you're afraid the jury is [going to] come back and convict you. . . . No one is forcing you, right?'' The petitioner responded, ‘‘Nobody's forcing me, Your Honor.'' The trial court then asked, ‘‘You don't have a choice because you're between a rock and hard place [and] you're taking this as a way out, right?'' The petitioner answered, ‘‘That's right.'' After accepting the petitioner's plea, the court sentenced him to a total effective sentence of twenty years incarceration, execution suspended after fifteen years, followed by ten years probation.

         On January 20, 2015, the petitioner filed an amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus, in which he alleged numerous ways in which his trial counsel had rendered ineffective assistance. The only claims relevant to this appeal, however, are the petitioner's claims that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing ‘‘to adequately present an alternative innocent explanation for the [victim's] allegations of sexual abuse, '' failing to ‘‘investigate and present evidence concerning the petitioner's employment records, '' and failing ‘‘to investigate and present evidence concerning [M.'s] employment records.'' On October 13, 2015, the habeas court denied the amended petition. The petitioner then filed a petition for certification to appeal, which the habeas court denied. This appeal followed. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

         On appeal, the petitioner claims that the habeas court abused its discretion in denying his petition for certification to appeal because the record established that his trial counsel had rendered ineffective assistance primarily in two ways. First, the petitioner claims that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to present evidence of the conversation between the victim and Garcia. He argues that as a result of that conversation, the victim learned from Garcia that the petitioner could go to jail if he inappropriately touched her. The petitioner claims that evidence of this conversation would have supported the alternative exculpatory explanation that the victim fabricated the allegations of sexual assault only after she learned from Garcia that he could be incarcerated for touching her inappropriately.

         Second, the petitioner claims that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to investigate adequately and present evidence of the employment records of the petitioner and M. Specifically, he argues that these records would have undermined the victim's allegations and credibility by showing that the petitioner's opportunity to be alone with the victim was either limited or nonexistent. With respect to M.'s employment records in particular, the petitioner also claims that the habeas court ...


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