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Meece v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Kentucky

September 28, 2017

WILLIAM HARRY MEECE APPELLANT
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY APPELLEE

         ON APPEAL FROM WARREN CIRCUIT COURT HONORABLE JOHN GRISE, JUDGE NO. 06-CR-00656

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Katherine Blair Department of Public Advocacy.

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Jeffrey Allan Cross Assistant Attorney General.

          OPINION

          KELLER JUSTICE.

         A Warren County jury found William Harry Meece guilty of Murder (three counts); Burglary, first degree; and Robbery, first degree. The jury determined beyond a reasonable doubt that aggravating circumstances existed in each of the three murders and thereafter fixed Meece's punishment at death. This Court affirmed the Warren Circuit Court's judgment on direct appeal. Meece filed a pro se Kentucky Rule of Civil Procedure (CR) 60.02 motion, which was supplemented by defense counsel, that the circuit court denied. Prior to the ruling on his CR 60.02 motion, but after filing the motion, Meece also filed a motion under Kentucky Rule of Criminal Procedure (RCr) 11.42. His RCr 11.42 motion is still pending in circuit court. Having reviewed the arguments of the parties, we affirm the trial court's order denying Meece's CR 60.02 motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This Court previously and extensively reviewed the record in this case on ' direct appeal. See Meece v. Commonwealth, 348 S.W.3d 627 (Ky. 2011). We refrain from unnecessarily repeating ourselves here and limit the background to the facts and procedural history that are relevant to this CR 60.02 appeal.

         On February 26, 1993, Meece, at the urging of Meg Wellnitz (Wellnitz), shot and killed Wellnitz's father, mother, and brother in their Adair County home. In February of 2003, a grand jury returned indictments against Meece and Wellnitz for Burglary, Robbery, and three counts of Murder.

         In 2004, Meece entered into plea discussions with the Commonwealth, and the parties reached an agreement. Meece gave two recorded statements in compliance with the agreement, confessing to all three murders and providing details as to how Wellnitz commissioned him to commit the crimes and how he did so. Wellnitz also entered a guilty plea and gave a recorded statement. Although her statement was inconsistent with Meece's in some details, the parties agreed that Meece had given Wellnitz money to purchase a Browning Hi-Power 9mm gun for Meece; Wellnitz used a fake ID to make that purchase; and Meece used that gun to kill the Wellnitzes.

         Meece moved the court to withdraw his guilty plea, which the court granted. Wellnitz proceeded with her guilty plea and was sentenced in accordance with her agreement with the Commonwealth.[1] The court once again set Meece's case for trial, and on September 18, 2006, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts and subsequently recommended a sentence of death.

         As previously stated, this Court has already reviewed this case on direct appeal and affirmed Meece's conviction and sentence. We now address Meece's CR 60.02 motion, setting forth additional background as necessary.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Whether a Defendant is entitled to the extraordinary relief provided by CR 60.02 is a matter left to the "sound discretion of the court and the exercise of that discretion will not be disturbed on appeal except for abuse." Brown v. Commonwealth, 932 S.W.2d 359, 362 (Ky. 1996) (quoting Richardson v. Brunner, 327 S.W.2d 572, 574 (Ky. 1959)). "The test for abuse of discretion is whether the trial judge's decision was arbitrary, unreasonable, unfair, or unsupported by sound legal principles." Foley v. Commonwealth, 425 S.W.3d 880, 886 (Ky. 2014) (citing Commonwealth v. English, 993 S.W.2d 941, 945 (Ky. 1999) (internal citations omitted)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Meece's original CR 60.02 motion set forth numerous grounds for relief. However, on appeal, the issues are more limited. Meece argues two broad grounds for relief: (1) several of the Commonwealth's witnesses gave perjured testimony, leading to a deprivation of his constitutional rights; and (2) the prosecutor committed fraud upon the Court, also leading to a violation of Meece's constitutional rights.

         A. The purpose of CR 60.02 relief.

         "CR 60.02 allows appeals based upon claims of error 'that were unknown and could not have been known to the moving party by exercise of reasonable diligence and in time to have been otherwise presented to the court."' Sanders v. Commonwealth, 339 S.W.3d 427, 437 (Ky. 2011) (quoting Young v. Edward Technology Group, Inc., 918 S.W.2d 229, 231 (Ky. App. 1995)). The rule provides an extraordinary form of relief, and "is not intended as merely an additional opportunity to raise claims which could and should have been raised in prior proceedings[.]" Sanders, 339 S.W.3d at 437.

         "It has long been the policy of this court that errors occurring during the trial should be corrected on direct appeal, and the grounds set forth under the various subsections of CR 60.02 deal with extraordinary situations which do not as a rule appear during the process of a trial." Gross v. Commonwealth, 648 S.W.2d 853, 856 (Ky. 1983) (quoting Howard v. Commonwealth, 364 S.W.2d 809, 810 (Ky. 1963) (emphasis added)). As such, "[t]he movant must demonstrate why he is entitled to this special, extraordinary relief." Gross, 648 S.W.2d at 856. The relief is extreme, limited, and. reserved for those times when justice itself requires an avenue for the plight endured by the aggrieved party. See id.

         CR. 60.02 is not intended to provide relief for grounds that could be attacked through direct appeals or collateral motions such as grounds under RCr 11.42. "[CR 60.02] is for relief that is not available by direct appeal and not available under RCr 11.42." Gross, 648 S.W.2d at 856. This Court has required that "a defendant aggrieved by a judgment in a criminal case" must first "directly appeal that judgment, stating every ground of error which it is reasonable to expect that he or his counsel is aware of when the appeal is taken." Id. at 857. Then, the "defendant is required to avail himself of RCr 11.42 ... as to any ground of which he is aware, or should be aware ... ". Id. Only after these avenues are exhausted can a defendant claim grounds for CR 60.02 relief. And the defendant cannot raise the same grounds as those for which he claimed, or should have claimed, relief on direct appeal or pursuant to RCr 11.42. See id. "In summary, CR 60.02 is not a separate avenue of appeal to be pursued in addition to other remedies, but is available only to raise issues which cannot be raised in other proceedings." McQueen v. Commonwealth, 948 S.W.2d 415, 416 (Ky. 1997).

         Although Meece attempts to obfuscate and disguise most of his arguments, there are four main areas for which he claims relief: (1) Regina Meade perjured herself; (2) Dell Jones perjured himself; (3) Leondus Patrick perjured himself; and (4) the prosecutor, Brian Wright, committed fraud. At the outset, we must state that Meece has litigated, is currently litigating, or should have litigated all of these claims for relief. However, we address the merits of his arguments below.

         B. Meece's claims of witnesses' perjury do not entitle him to CR 60.02 relief.

         Meece correctly states that CR 60.02 allows a court to provide relief from a judgment when there has been "perjury or falsified evidence." CR 60.02(c). This Court has previously addressed the issue of perjury as grounds for relief under CR 60.02. See Commonwealth v. Spaulding, 991 S.W.2d 651 (Ky. 1999). When a prosecutor knowingly utilizes a material, false statement against the defendant, he has committed prosecutorial misconduct through the use of perjured testimony. Id. at 654 (quoting United States v. Lochmondy, 890 F.2d 817, 822 (6th Cir. 1989)). The "use of perjured testimony [without the knowledge of the prosecutor] is treated like newly discovered evidence for the purposes of CR 60.02." Spaulding, 991 S.W.2d at 654.

         "[A] criminal conviction based on perjured testimony can be a reason of an extraordinary nature justifying relief pursuant to CR 60.02(f) [.]" Id. at 657 (emphasis added). In such cases, "the burden remains on the defendant to show both that a reasonable certainty exists as to the falsity of the testimony and that the conviction probably would not have resulted had the truth been known before [the Defendant] can be entitled to [CR 60.02] relief." Id. According to Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 523.020, a person commits perjury "when he makes a material false statement, which he does not believe, in any official proceeding under an oath required or authorized by law." So, to justify relief, Meece must first show a reasonable certainty that Meade, Jones, or Patrick made a material false statement, which he or she did not believe.

         Meece identifies Meade, Jones, and Patrick as witnesses he claims gave perjured testimony at his trial. The alleged perjurous testimony from each witness is described and addressed below.

         1. Regina Meade.

         Regina Meade was married to Meece from 1991 to 2000. The murders occurred in 1993. While they were married, Meade did not incriminate Meece in any way for the murders of the Wellnitz family. However, after their divorce, police approached her again. This time, she told them about hearing Meece and Wellnitz discussing their plot to kill the Wellnitz family and what she had seen the night of the murders. It is undisputed that the Commonwealth agreed not to prosecute Meade for any of her potentially criminal involvement in these activities in exchange for her truthful testimony. However, at trial, when Meece's counsel questioned Meade about this plea agreement, she did not disclose it.

Defense Counsel (DC)): Do you have any agreements with the Commonwealth regarding your testimony here today?
Regina Meade (RM): No.
DC: There was never any agreement between you and the Commonwealth that you would not be charged with any crime?
RM: Not to my knowledge.
DC: Not to your knowledge?
RM: Not that I remember.
DC: I take it that you've never been charged with any crimes then?
RM: Nope.

See Meece, 348 S.W.3d at 679.

         After this exchange, counsel moved on to other subject areas. Id. Meade mentioned through her testimony and cross-examination that she met with the prosecutor and detectives, but, again, counsel did not question her further about any agreements that arose from this meeting. On redirect, the prosecutor did not attempt to question Meade any further about the plea agreement. Id.

         Regina Meade did ...


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