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State v. Simpson

Supreme Court of Connecticut

August 21, 2018


          Argued March 27, 2018

         Procedural History

         Substitute information charging the defendant with the crimes of felony murder, murder and robbery in the first degree, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Haven, where the defendant was presented to the court, Clifford, J., on a plea of guilty to the charge of murder; thereafter, the state entered a nolle prosequi as to the charges of felony murder and robbery in the first degree; subsequently, the court denied the defendant's motion to withdraw the plea and rendered judgment in accordance with the plea, from which the defendant appealed to this court; thereafter, the appeal was transferred to the Appellate Court, Beach, Keller and Bear, Js., which reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the case for further proceedings, and the state, on the granting of certification, appealed to this court. Reversed; judgment directed.

          James M. Ralls, assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Michael Dearington, former state's attorney, and Patrick J. Griffin, state's attorney, for the appellant (state).

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

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


          KAHN, J.

         This appeal presents us with a common scenario: a trial court accepts a guilty plea after a proper canvass, but the defendant subsequently seeks to withdraw the plea due to a change of heart. The question that often emerges from this familiar context is the extent to which the trial court must inquire into the defendant's request. In this case, the Appellate Court concluded that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to conduct (1) an evidentiary hearing on the defendant's motion to withdraw his plea, and (2) an adequate inquiry into the defendant's request for new counsel. The state appeals[1] from the judgment of the Appellate Court reversing the judgment of conviction of the defendant, Earl C. Simpson III, following his guilty plea entered under the Alford[2] doctrine of murder in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-54a (a) and 53a-8.[3] State v. Simpson, 169 Conn.App. 168, 171-72, 150 A.3d 699 (2016). The state claims that the Appellate Court improperly concluded that the trial court was required to hold hearings on the defendant's motion to withdraw his guilty plea and his request for new counsel. Alternatively, the state claims that the Appellate Court improperly concluded that the trial court did not conduct such hearings. The defendant counters that hearings on both the motion and the request were required, and that the Appellate Court properly concluded that the trial court failed to conduct them. We conclude that the trial court, after conducting a hearing on the defendant's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, properly denied the motion to withdraw, and, therefore, no evidentiary hearing was required. We also conclude that, under the circumstances of this case, no hearing was required on his request for new counsel. Therefore, the judgment of the Appellate Court is reversed.

         The Appellate Court set forth the following facts and procedural history. ‘‘The defendant, represented by counsel, entered an Alford plea[4] in this case on September 19, 2014. The state, by way of a long form information, filed on June 29, 2012, 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).'' (Footnote added and omitted.) State v. Simpson, supra, 169 Conn.App. 172.

         The defendant pleaded guilty under the Alford doctrine to murder in violation of § 53a-54a and admitted that he had violated his probation in violation of General Statutes § 53a-32. Then, ‘‘[t]he 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. [Those bullets] 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 [the] police he saw Franklin shoot . . . 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 . . . 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 . . . James, the defendant . . . admitted that he was one of the shooters.'[5]

         ''Thereafter, the court canvassed the defendant with respect to his [murder and probation] 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: . . . 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 [murder] 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 . . . 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 . . . 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. (About this so-called confession.)

         ‘‘ ‘I need a new attorney and I need for him to request a ‘‘[m]otion to vacate'' and a[n] ‘‘evidentiary hearing.'' My counsel also failed to file a ‘‘motion to dismiss'' the murder charges after . . . Franklin's 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[n] evidence hearing on this matter. Ineffective counsel 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. . . .

         ‘‘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 suppose[d] 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. ([In]effective 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 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 suppose[d] 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 with drawing his plea.' . . . The following colloquy then occurred:

         ‘‘ ‘The Court: So, I guess I should . . . ask [the defendant] . . . is he still pursuing a ...

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