Withdrawal of guilty pleas was not required to correct a manifest injustice or for fair and just reason, and appellant received effective assistance of counsel.
Heard, considered and decided by the court en banc.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anderson, Russell A., Justice.
Appellant Lucas Roy Butala, in pursuing his first substantive review through post-conviction proceedings, appeals from an order of the district court denying his request to withdraw his guilty pleas to first-degree murder. Appellant challenges the voluntariness of his pleas and the adequacy of defense counsels' representation. Concluding that the district court did not err in denying appellant's request to withdraw his pleas and that appellant received effective assistance of counsel, we affirm.
On August 4, 1999, appellant was charged by indictment with four counts of first-degree murder, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.185 (1) and (3) (2002), and one count of arson, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.561, subd. 1 (2002), in connection with the September 5, 1998 deaths of Gene Olson and Michael Mickalich in a house fire in Eveleth, Minnesota. The state alleged that appellant started the fire by igniting gasoline that had been poured on one or both of the men as they slept. Appellant had previously been charged by complaint with two counts of second-degree murder for these deaths, and a contested omnibus hearing was held on June 14-15, 1999. Trial was scheduled to commence on January 13, 2000.
As the trial date drew nearer, appellant and defense counsel engaged in a fairly serious discussion about a plea option; and at some point, appellant requested immunity from prosecution for certain members of his family, a home-cooked meal with his mother, and jail contact visits with his family as part of an agreement. On January 5, 2000, in a telephone conference involving the trial court and counsel for appellant and the state, the trial court told counsel that the court would accept no plea agreement that included contact visits and meals as it was beyond his control. Also on January 5, 2000, with the assistance of defense counsel, appellant completed and signed a Rule 15 plea petition, the terms and conditions of which recited that he would plead guilty to the two counts of first-degree felony-murder, with arson as the predicate felony, in exchange for two concurrent life sentences and the dismissal of the remaining charges.*fn1 Defense counsel went over the petition with appellant "line by line," and appellant filled it out completely in his own handwriting. On January 6, 2000, the prosecutor sent a letter to defense counsel "certifying * * * that in exchange for [appellant's] pleas of guilty to the two Counts of First Degree Murder[,]" the county attorney's office would not prosecute any member of appellant's immediate family for any criminal offenses arising out of or coming to light as a result of the homicide investigation. The letter indicated that the agreement was consistent with representations that had been made by various law enforcement agencies to appellant's family throughout the course of the homicide investigation. The letter further indicated that the prosecutor would continue to facilitate appellant's requests for contact visits with his family and a meal prepared for him by his mother.
On January 7, 2000, the prosecutor filed a letter with the court outlining the terms of the plea agreement, but this letter made no mention of family-member immunity and contact visits. That same day, appellant appeared in district court with his lead trial attorney and assisting co-counsel and entered pleas of guilty. The court then conducted a Rule 15 inquiry. See Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.01. Appellant stated he was not making any claim of innocence to either of the two counts to which he had entered guilty pleas.
Appellant confirmed that he had been given adequate time to consult with his attorneys as to the way in which his case was handled and to discuss the plea agreement. Defense counsel and the court questioned appellant thoroughly about his knowledge of the rights he was waiving, the voluntariness of the pleas, and his understanding of the plea agreement. Appellant confirmed that he was entering the pleas "of [his] own free will" and that there was nothing about the Rule 15 petition or the plea agreement that was "outstanding" or that he did not understand. Appellant told the court that he remembered telling his father that he killed two men. Appellant said that one of the men was "talking about snitching" on his father and "talking bad stuff" about his father; that appellant "got angry," and "lost it;" and that appellant remembered telling his brother that he was responsible for setting the fire. Because appellant's memory was somewhat limited, appellant agreed to the court's reliance on the grand jury transcript for purposes of ensuring an adequate factual basis for the pleas, stating that he had no reason to dispute the accuracy of the testimony of those witnesses.*fn2 During the plea proceedings, there was no mention of the January 6, 2000 letter. Although the pleas of guilty to first-degree felony-murder carried mandatory life sentences, because restitution was to be a part of the disposition, the court ordered a presentence investigation for the purpose of determining restitution and set sentencing for February 24, 2000.
On February 22, 2000, appellant submitted a pro se motion to withdraw his pleas, claiming that he was innocent, that he was under mental and emotional stress at the time of the pleas, that he had not been "provided with proper counsel," and that the prosecutor had "made deals with [him] behind the judge's back * * *." In his response, the prosecutor submitted a memorandum in which he disclosed the contents of the January 6, 2000 letter promising family immunity from prosecution. At the sentencing hearing, when appellant's attorneys declined to speak in support of the motion, appellant orally reiterated the claims he had made in his written submission. The court denied appellant's motion, concluding that the pleas were voluntary and intelligent and, after reviewing the grand jury testimony, that the factual basis requirement had been satisfied; that appellant was not adversely affected by mental and emotional stress; and that his attorneys had adequately represented him. After the court denied his motion and after hearing victim impact statements, appellant requested that he be given consecutive life sentences, rather than concurrent life sentences as provided in the plea agreement. The request was granted.
Twenty-two months later, now represented by conflicts counsel, appellant filed a petition for post-conviction relief, again seeking withdrawal of his pleas and also asking that his sentences be amended to run concurrently. Appellant's claims for plea withdrawal essentially mirrored those made prior to sentencing and, in addition, included a claim that he should have been afforded substitute counsel when his attorneys stepped aside and declined to advance his motion to withdraw his pleas. At the evidentiary hearing, appellant's lead trial attorney testified that promises of immunity from prosecution for family members and contact visits "came up" at appellant's request, but she could not recall whether the immunity for family members had been discussed with the court during the January 5 phone conference. She confirmed that the court had not received the prosecutor's January 6 letter of understanding at the time of the plea proceedings. She indicated that she explained to appellant that the court would not accept a plea agreement containing certain conditions, and she was certain that she explained to appellant that promises contained in the January 6 letter but not included in the Rule 15 petition were not a part of the plea agreement and that he would have to rely on the prosecutor's word. She indicated the January 6 letter resulted from a request to have "something in writing" from the prosecutor. Appellant's trial co-counsel also testified that appellant understood that family immunity from prosecution and contact visits were not a part of the plea agreement. Co-counsel explained there had been some concern about criminal liability for aiding an offender after the fact for certain members of appellant's family but that the prosecutor "had always indicated that he was not going to proceed against those people."
Appellant testified that he thought promises not to prosecute his family, continued contact visits, and a home-cooked meal were all part of the plea agreement. He testified that he received no assistance in preparing his motion to withdraw his pleas. He acknowledged that, before he entered his pleas, he was aware that the court had refused to accept a plea with terms beyond the court's control.
The post-conviction court denied appellant's request to withdraw his pleas, concluding that withdrawal was not necessary to correct a manifest injustice where the pleas were voluntarily given and that appellant had not established a fair and just reason for withdrawal. The post-conviction court said the fact that the pleas may have been linked to leniency to third persons did not make appellant's pleas invalid. The court further determined that the absence of representation in the plea withdrawal motion was moot. However, the court granted appellant's request for sentencing relief, modifying appellant's life sentences to run concurrently in accordance with the plea agreement. This appeal followed.
In keeping with our responsibility to vindicate a denial of fundamental rights and thereby prevent manifest injustice, we have an "obligation to extend a broad review of both questions of law and fact in post-conviction proceedings." State ex rel. Pittman v. Tahash, 284 Minn. 365, 368, 170 N.W.2d 445, 447 (1969). Nevertheless, our scope of review is not unlimited; and on factual matters, our review is limited to whether there is sufficient evidence in the record to sustain the post-conviction court's findings. Id. On issues of law, we exercise de novo ...