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Powers v. State

October 14, 2004

VERNON NEAL POWERS, PETITIONER, APPELLANT,
v.
STATE OF MINNESOTA, RESPONDENT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. The post-conviction claim that the district court erred in denying the defendant's motion to sever his trial from that of his co-defendants is procedurally barred because it was raised on direct appeal.

2. The post-conviction claim that the district court violated the rule in Apprendi v. New Jersey when it imposed consecutive sentences is procedurally barred because it could have been raised on direct appeal.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hanson, Justice.

Took no part, Anderson, G. Barry, J.

Affirmed.

Considered and decided by the court en banc without oral argument.

OPINION

Appellant Vernon Neal Powers seeks post-conviction review of his convictions of first-degree murder and first-degree assault in connection with the murders of Juan Ramirez and Raul Gutierrez, and the shooting of Benjamin Hernandez, on June 30, 2000, in Austin, Minnesota. The district court sentenced Powers to two mandatory life sentences for two first-degree premeditated murder convictions and a presumptive sentence of 86 months for the first-degree assault conviction, all sentences to run consecutively. Powers appeals from the order of the post-conviction court denying his petition without a hearing. He argues that the post-conviction court should have granted a hearing on his claim that he was prejudiced by the district court's refusal to sever his trial from that of two co-defendants and that the consecutive sentencing violated the rule in Apprendi v. New Jersey. Because all of the issues raised in this petition could have been raised in Powers' direct appeal, we affirm.

A detailed description of the facts can be found at State v. Powers, 654 N.W.2d 667 (Minn. 2003). Only the procedural history is relevant to this appeal. On direct appeal, this court affirmed Powers' convictions, concluding that (1) Powers did not suffer substantial prejudice from joinder of his trial with that of two co-defendants; (2) severance of the joined defendants was not necessary for a fair trial; (3) the district court did not abuse its discretion when limiting testimony in a Schwartz hearing; (4) disparaging comments by the prosecutor during closing remarks did not impair Powers' rights to a fair trial; (5) Powers' absence at three hearings was harmless error; (6) Powers was not denied effective assistance of counsel; and (7) Powers' rights to an impartial jury and adequate voir dire were not violated. Id. Powers did not challenge his sentence on direct appeal.

On December 16, 2003, Powers filed for post-conviction relief under Minn. Stat. § 590.02 (2002). The only new information he supplied with his petition was the affidavit of his co-defendant, David Christian, who stated that, had their trials been severed, Christian would have provided exculpatory testimony in Powers' trial.*fn1

The issue we must consider is whether the post-conviction court abused its discretion in summarily denying Powers' petition. "On appeal from a summary denial of post-conviction relief, we examine whether sufficient evidence exists to support the post-conviction court's findings and will reverse those findings only upon proof that the post-conviction court abused its discretion." Ives v. State, 655 N.W.2d 633, 635 (Minn. 2003). A post-conviction court must grant a timely hearing on a motion for post-conviction relief "[u]nless the petition and the files and records of the proceeding conclusively show that the petitioner is entitled to no relief[.]" Minn. Stat. § 590.04, subd. 1 (2002); see also State v. Rhodes, 627 N.W.2d 74, 86 (Minn. 2001). But, once a defendant has directly appealed his conviction, this court will not consider, in a subsequent post-conviction petition, any matters that were raised in the direct appeal or were known at the time of that appeal. State v. Knaffla, 309 Minn. 246, 252, 243 N.W.2d 737, 741 (1976). And a district court may summarily deny a petition for post-conviction relief "when the issues raised in it have previously been decided by the court of appeals or the supreme court in the same case." Minn. Stat. § 590.04, subd. 3 (2002).

Two exceptions to the Knaffla rule allow for post-conviction relief despite the fact that the claims could have been raised on direct appeal: (1) where a novel legal issue is presented; or (2) where the interests of fairness and justice require relief. Washington v. State, 675 N.W.2d 628, 630 (Minn. 2004). To justify a hearing on a novel legal issue, the claim must be so novel that its legal basis was not reasonably available to counsel at the time the direct appeal was taken. King v. State, 649 N.W.2d 149, 156 (Minn. 2002). Claims decided in the interests of justice require that the claims have substantive merit. Id. at 157-58.

I.

Powers argues that he is entitled to a hearing on his claim of error in the failure to grant severance because "[s]everal factual conclusions" were "at least contestable" and "essential to its result." To support this assertion, Powers provided an affidavit of co-defendant David Christian, who avers that, if the trials had been severed, he would have testified at Powers' trial and would have offered exculpatory testimony that Powers was not involved in the Austin murders. ...


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