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Helmedach v. Commissioner of Correction

Supreme Court of Connecticut

August 14, 2018


          Argued December 18, 2017

         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, Cobb, J.; judgment granting the petition, from which the respondent, on the granting of certification, appealed to the Appellate Court, Lavine, Prescott, and Mihalakos, Js., which affirmed the judgment of the habeas court, and the respondent, on the granting of certification, appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Robert J. Scheinblum, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom were Adrienne Russo, assistant state's attorney, and, on the brief, Patrick J. Griffin, state's attorney, for the appellant (respondent).

          Conrad Ost Seifert, assigned counsel, for the appellee (petitioner).

          Daniel M. Erwin and Christopher Duby filed a brief for the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association as amicus curiae.

          Palmer, McDonald, Robinson, D'Auria, Mullins and Kahn, Js. [*]


          D'AURIA, J.

         In this certified appeal, we consider whether the attorney for the petitioner, Jennifer Helmedach, rendered ineffective assistance when, during trial, he delayed presenting to the petitioner a favorable plea offer from the prosecutor, an offer the prosecutor later withdrew before it could be accepted. We agree with the habeas court and Appellate Court that counsel's delay amounted to deficient performance pursuant to Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), and, in light of the fact that the respondent, the Commissioner of Correction, does not contest that the petitioner was prejudiced, we therefore affirm the Appellate Court's judgment.


         The following facts, as found by the habeas court, and procedural history are relevant to this appeal. The charges in this case stem from the murder of Faye Bennett. The state alleged that the petitioner had helped her romantic partner, David Bell, lure the victim to an apartment in Meriden where Bell robbed and murdered her. The state further alleged that the petitioner helped Bell flee the scene in the victim's vehicle. They were later apprehended in New York.

         The state charged the petitioner with felony murder, robbery in the first degree, and conspiracy to commit robbery in the third degree.[1] The trial court appointed Richard Reeve to represent the petitioner. The petitioner denied participating in the crime or having prior knowledge of Bell's intention to rob or to murder the victim, and she claimed that she fled with him under duress.

         The petitioner and prosecutor discussed the possibility of disposing of the case pursuant to a plea agreement. During a pretrial conference, the prosecutor offered to agree to a sentence of fifteen to twenty years incarceration in exchange for a guilty plea on the charge of robbery or conspiracy to commit robbery, thus having the petitioner avoid the twenty-five year mandatory minimum sentence for felony murder. Reeve stated that he would discuss the offer with the petitioner, and the prosecutor indicated his intention to review the offer with the victim's family. Reeve later replied to the prosecutor that the petitioner wanted to accept the offer, but the prosecutor withdrew the offer because the victim's family opposed it. The petitioner moved the trial court to enforce specific performance of that plea agreement, but the trial court denied the motion.

         The case proceeded to trial. During jury selection, the prosecutor made a second offer of twenty-two years incarceration, execution suspended after seventeen years, which the petitioner declined. The prosecutor made a third offer, near the start of the trial, of fourteen years to serve, which the petitioner once again rejected. The petitioner rejected the second and third offers because the state's case had been weakened when a critical witness recanted an earlier oral statement to the police establishing that the petitioner had spoken to that witness about helping to arrange for the robbery of the victim. The witness' testimony was the only evidence the state had to directly tie the petitioner to the robbery.

         The prosecutor made a fourth and final plea offer after resting the state's case. The state rested its case on a Friday, and the trial was set to resume with the defense's case on the following Tuesday. Reeve spent substantial time during the weekend with the petitioner, who was incarcerated pending trial, preparing her for her anticipated testimony. On Tuesday morning, the day the petitioner was expected to take the stand, the prosecutor called Reeve and offered a plea agreement of ten years to serve. Reeve thought the offer was ‘‘a great offer'' for his client, but he was concerned about relaying it to her right before her testimony. According to the habeas court, Reeve thought that because the petitioner was young and ‘‘flustered'' about testifying, hearing the offer would negatively impact her testimony. Reeve asked the prosecutor if he could convey the offer to the petitioner after she testified, and the prosecutor replied ‘‘ ‘that's okay.' ''

         On his way to court, Reeve discussed the offer with his law partner. His partner agreed that the offer of ten years was favorable and advised Reeve not to delay in telling the petitioner about the offer. Because the prosecutor had indicated he would leave the offer open, however, the habeas court found that Reeve decided to follow ‘‘his instincts'' and wait to tell her.

         Reeve presented the offer to his client, but he had waited to do so until after her testimony concluded two and one-half days later. The petitioner indicated that she wanted to accept it but first wanted to discuss it with her mother and Reeve together. Reeve then informed the prosecutor that his client was interested in accepting the offer. The prosecutor, ...

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