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Commonwealth v. Helm

Supreme Court of Kentucky

March 22, 2018

COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY APPELLANT/ CROSS-APPELLEE
v.
WILLIAM ROY HELM, JR. APPELLEE/ CROSS-APPELLANT

          ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NO. 2014-CA-000990 HARDIN CIRCUIT COURT NO. 2006-CR-00602

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT/ CROSS-APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Brian Darwin Morrow Assistant Attorney General.

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE/CROSS-APPELLANT: Euva Denean Blandford Department of Public Advocacy.

          OPINION

          MINTON, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         REVERSING AND REINSTATING

         We granted the Commonwealth's motion for discretionary review to ) determine whether the Court of Appeals erred when it reversed the trial court's denial of William Roy Helm Jr.'s RCr[1] 11.42 post-conviction motion for a new sentencing-phase trial based upon ineffective assistance of trial counsel.. Remanding for a new sentencing-phase trial for Helm, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred by failing to find Helm's trial counsel's performance constitutionally deficient for having advised Helm to enter into a sentencing agreement with the Commonwealth to waive jury sentencing and accept a plea agreement under which he was sentenced to the maximum penalty to avoid potential risks to his parole eligibility and meritorious credit against his sentence. We reverse the Court of Appeals' decision because we hold that it misapplies our ineffective-assistance-of-counsel standard by failing to consider, as the trial court properly did, the totality of the circumstances of Helm's case from the perspective of an objectively reasonable trial attorney, placing too much emphasis on Helm's agreeing to the maximum penalty.

         We also granted Helm's cross-motion for discretionary review to consider his argument that the trial court erred by denying his motion for relief for ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, who advised him to dismiss an earlier appeal in favor of pursuing the RCr 1.1.42 motion now before us on discretionary review. Because it reversed the trial court on the denial of the RCr 11.42 motion, the Court of Appeals did not reach the defective-appellate-counsel issue Helm presents to us. But we agree on discretionary review with the trial court's determination that appellate counsel's performance was not constitutionally deficient.

         Accordingly, we reverse the opinion of the Court of Appeals and order that the trial court's order be reinstated.

         I. BACKGROUND.

         A circuit court jury convicted Helm of five counts of second-degree rape, [2] two counts of second-degree sodomy, [3] and two counts of first-degree sexual abuse[4]. Before the guilt phase of the jury trial, Helm and the Commonwealth reached the following sentencing agreement: the trial court would sentence Helm to ten years' imprisonment for all crimes committed against each victim (there were two victims), meaning a 20-year prison sentence, to be served consecutively, with 20% parole-eligibility.

         The events culminating in the sentencing agreement are the source of Helm's first RCr 11.42 ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim. As the trial court found, the trial record reflects that Helm's trial counsel and the trial court acknowledged that 20 years' imprisonment, by law, was the maximum sentence Helm could receive.[5] The parties were unsure at trial as to whether, by law, Helm's convictions would make him 85% parole eligible, [6] as opposed to the 20% eligibility that Helm wanted.

         But Helm agreed to these terms partly because his trial counsel asserted that the Department of Corrections had been classifying similarly situated prisoners at 85% parole eligibility.[7] In addition to providing his own anecdotal evidence from his experience as an attorney, Helm's counsel supported the necessity of this stipulation in the sentencing agreement because of the following language contained in the Department of Public Advocacy's trial manual:

WARNING!! KRS 439.3401(1) which lists the offenses which can qualify a person as a violent offender, includes offenses which are Class C or D felonies, or even misdemeanors. For example, subsection (1)(d) says that a person is a violent offender if convicted of or has pled to, "The commission or attempted commission of a felony sexual offense described in KRS Chapter 510." Sexual abuse 1st Degree is a Class C or D felony. KRS 510.110. Attempted Sexual Abuse 1st Degree is a Class A Misdemeanor. KRS 506.010(4)(d). Although subsection (4) seems to limit 85% parole eligibility to Class A and B felonies, nevertheless, the Department of Corrections has applied it to ALL felony sexual offenses in the past. DPA Appeals Branch had to do a Declaratory Judgment action. So, have the judge make a finding of parole eligibility at the sentencing hearing and get an agreed order.[8]

         Helm appealed the conviction as a matter of right.[9] This Court affirmed Helm's convictions, but remanded the case to correct two errors.[10] The Court determined that the trial court improperly imposed upon Helm a $1, 000 fine and that Helm's sentence was illegal because of an error on the face of the judgment.[11] This judgment erroneously stated that on Count 2 Helm was convicted of second-degree rape, when he was actually convicted of first-degree sexual abuse on that Count.[12] Because of this clerical error, Helm technically agreed to, and the trial court imposed, an illegal sentence of 10 years' imprisonment for a Class D felony.[13]

         On remand, the Commonwealth moved to amend the judgment under Kentucky Civil Rules (CR) 60.01 and/or 60.02(a) and (f), arguing that a new guilt-phase trial was unnecessary because the parties agreed to the total sentence and the error in the judgment was simply clerical in nature. The trial court agreed with the Commonwealth and entered orders amending the judgment to correct the error to reflect that Helm was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse rather than second-degree rape. This was done before Helm had an opportunity to respond to the Commonwealth's motion. Helm eventually did respond, opposing the Commonwealth's motion, arguing that it was contrary to the mandate of this Court and that he was entitled to a new guilt-phase trial because the error was not simply clerical but the basis for an illegal sentence.[14]

         The trial court reviewed the sentencing proceedings and found no misunderstanding between the Commonwealth and Helm regarding his convictions and the length of his sentence. The trial court concluded that the amended judgment corrected the clerical errors and memorialized the actual terms of the sentencing agreement between Helm and the Commonwealth. The trial court determined that an entirely new guilty-phase trial was unnecessary.

         Helm filed a direct appeal from the amended judgment, which he later successfully moved to dismiss. This decision to dismiss the appeal is the source of Helm's second ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim. In Helm's motion to dismiss the appeal, he acknowledged that:

The record shows that the appellant agreed to a maximum sentence of 10 years for all crimes against one victim and agreed to another maximum 10 years for all crimes against the other victim. He agreed on the record that those two ten-year periods would run consecutively for 20 years. After reducing the erroneous 10-year sentence to 5 years, the cumulative sentences for the two victims still totals at least 20 years. Thus there is no basis on this record for challenging the re-imposition of a 20-year term after correction of the clerical error.

         The record also revealed an affidavit from Helm in which he admitted that appellate counsel's recommendation was correct and that he met with appellate counsel, who discussed the benefits and risks of pursuing or abandoning the appeal.

         Helm then filed an RCr 11.42 motion, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective for recommending the sentencing agreement, that his appellate counsel was ineffective for recommending dismissal of the appeal of the new judgment after remand, and that he was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his motion. The trial court denied the motion without a hearing, concluding that Helm received a benefit from the agreement in the 20% parole eligibility secured by his counsel and the benefit of ensuring receipt of meritorious good-time credit on his sentence. Helm then appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals agreed with Helm that his trial counsel was ineffective, remanding the case to the trial court for a new sentencing-phase trial. Because the Court of Appeals remanded the case for a new sentencing-phase trial, the Court of Appeals did not reach Helm's ineffective assistance of appellate counsel and evidentiary hearing arguments.

         II. ANALYSIS.

         The United States Supreme Court stated the showing that must be made to assert and prove a successful ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim:

A convicted defendant's claim that counsel's assistance was so defective as to require reversal of a conviction...has two components. First, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient. This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the "counsel" guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. This requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable. Unless a defendant makes both showings, it cannot be said that the conviction...resulted from a breakdown in the adversary process that renders the result unreliable.[15]

         "When a convicted defendant complains of the ineffectiveness of counsel's assistance, the defendant must show that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness."[16] "In any case presenting an ineffectiveness claim, the performance inquiry must be whether the counsel's assistance was reasonable considering all the circumstances."[17]

         "Strickland...calls for an inquiry into the objective reasonableness of counsel's performance, not counsel's subjective state of mind."[18] "Judicial scrutiny of counsel's ...


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