Stearns County District Court File No. 73-CR-10-1784
David W. Merchant, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Anders J. Erickson, Assistant Public Defender, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)
Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Janelle P. Kendall, Stearns County Attorney, Michael J. Lieberg, Assistant County Attorney, St. Cloud, Minnesota (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge; Bjorkman, Judge; and Klaphake, Judge.[*]
Appellant challenges the district court's denial of postconviction relief, arguing that his guilty pleas to two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct are invalid because the factual basis for the pleas was established solely by leading questions. We affirm.
Appellant James Marek was charged with four counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct based on allegations that he committed multiple acts of sexual contact and penetration against his four-year-old niece, K.J., and four-year-old nephew, C.M. Marek pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in exchange for the state's dismissal of the remaining charges, and the district court imposed concurrent prison sentences of 144 and 153 months. Marek subsequently filed a petition for postconviction relief seeking to withdraw his guilty pleas. Marek argued that his guilty pleas are inaccurate because the factual basis was established through leading questions. The district court denied Marek's petition. This appeal follows.
We review a district court's decision to deny postconviction relief for an abuse of discretion. State v. Rhodes, 675 N.W.2d 323, 326 (Minn. 2004). The scope of our review is limited to determining whether there is sufficient evidence to sustain the findings of the postconviction court. State v. Ecker, 524 N.W.2d 712, 716 (Minn. 1994). We review findings of fact for sufficiency of the evidence and issues of law de novo. Leake v. State, 737 N.W.2d 531, 535 (Minn. 2007).
A defendant does not have an absolute right to withdraw a guilty plea. Perkins v. State, 559 N.W.2d 678, 685 (Minn. 1997). After sentencing, a defendant may withdraw a guilty plea only if "withdrawal is necessary to correct a manifest injustice." Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.05, subd. 1. A manifest injustice occurs if a guilty plea is invalid. State v. Theis, 742 N.W.2d 643, 646 (Minn. 2007). A guilty plea is valid if it is voluntary, accurate, and intelligent. Perkins, 559 N.W.2d at 688. "The defendant bears the burden to establish that his plea was invalid." Lussier v. State, 821 N.W.2d 581, 588 (Minn. 2012). The validity of a guilty plea is a question of law, which we review de novo. State v. Raleigh, 778 N.W.2d 90, 94 (Minn. 2010).
Marek challenges only the accuracy of his guilty pleas. The accuracy requirement protects the defendant from pleading guilty to a more serious offense than he could be properly convicted of at trial. Lussier, 821 N.W.2d at 588. For a guilty plea to be accurate, a factual basis must be established on the record showing that the defendant's conduct meets all elements of the charge to which he is pleading guilty. State v. Iverson, 664 N.W.2d 346, 349 (Minn. 2003).
Marek argues that the factual basis for his pleas is insufficient because it was established solely by leading questions posed by the prosecutor. We disagree. The supreme court has repeatedly criticized the use of leading questions to establish the factual basis for a guilty plea. See Raleigh, 778 N.W.2d at 95 (discussing two decades of caselaw that "make[s] clear that we generally discourage the practice of establishing a guilty plea's factual basis by permitting counsel to ask leading questions of a defendant"). But the failure of the district court to "elicit proper responses" does not require plea withdrawal if the record "contains sufficient evidence to support the conviction." Id. at 94. In determining whether that standard is met, we may consider the plea colloquy (including the defendant's responses to leading questions), the plea petition, the complaint, and any evidence of guilt in the record at the time of the guilty plea. See Lussier, 821 N.W.2d at 588-89; see also Raleigh, 778 N.W.2d at 94 (concluding that defendant's affirmative response to leading question ...