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Wheeler v. State

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

January 23, 2017

Jetaun Helen Wheeler, petitioner, Appellant,
v.
State of Minnesota, Respondent.

         Hennepin County District Court File No. 27-CR-13-27810

         Affirmed

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Chang Y. Lau, Assistant Public Defender, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Kelly O'Neill Moller, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent)

          Considered and decided by Rodenberg, Presiding Judge; Halbrooks, Judge; and Kirk, Judge.

         SYLLABUS

         A district court does not impermissibly involve itself in plea negotiations when it encourages plea discussions between counsel, monitors those discussions, and informs counsel of those plea proposals of which the court would likely disapprove.

          OPINION

          RODENBERG, Judge

         Appellant Jetaun Helen Wheeler was convicted after her plea of guilty to aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder for her role in the murder of E.S. Appellant challenges the district court's summary denial of her petition for postconviction relief, which alleged that the district court improperly inserted itself into the negotiations that resulted in appellant's guilty plea. Because appellant was not entitled to an evidentiary hearing and the district court did not improperly insert itself into plea negotiations, we affirm.

         FACTS

         In August 2013, appellant was charged with second-degree intentional murder after police officers searched appellant's home pursuant to a warrant. The body of E.S., who had been missing for several weeks, was found in appellant's freezer. Before trial, two of appellant's three children revealed to therapists that, on the night E.S. died, they had witnessed their mother and her friend holding E.S. down and striking him. The children also told prosecutors that they asked their mother the next day about a red stain on the rug. They were told that it was ketchup. Appellant moved for and was granted a competency hearing concerning whether the children would be competent to testify as witnesses at trial. Her request for a hearing on whether the children's testimony had been tainted by outside influence was denied by the district court.

         The district court requested that counsel for both parties make a good-faith effort to reach a resolution. The district court stated, "It is a pretty serious situation to have children of the defendant having to come to court and testify possibly against their own mother. Both of you should be considering this. So I would like to see some attempts made at trying to resolve this." Counsel for appellant replied that settlement efforts were stalled because the state would offer nothing less than a plea to second-degree intentional murder.

         Nine days before the trial began, the state e-mailed the district court with an update on plea negotiations. The e-mail indicates that appellant had proposed pleading guilty to second-degree manslaughter, with a sentencing range between probation and 96 months in prison. The state had countered with an offer of second-degree unintentional murder, with a sentence of 240 months. The state indicated to the district court that it did not appear that the case would settle. The district court replied in an e-mail:

The defendant's offer to enter a straight plea to manslaughter in the second degree with a waiver of Blakely for a double departure of 96 months in prison, much less for a probationary disposition, isn't something this court is willing to do. Given what facts the court is aware of, a plea to unintentional 2nd degree murder with a prison term the parties can agree on (something in the range of x months and 240 months) appears to be more realistic.

         No plea agreement was reached before trial. The first day of trial testimony began on July 17, 2014. After the first day of trial, the district court stated to counsel for both parties, "I just wanted an update. It's my understanding that the state did get permission to offer to do an unintentional second-degree murder for some range within the box but zero criminal history points and is it also my understanding that the defendant declined?" Counsel for appellant explained that she would be meeting with appellant over the weekend to discuss appellant's trial testimony and that counsel would discuss the offer with appellant "[i]f the opportunity arises." The state indicated that the children would not testify until the following week.

         During the weekend following the first two days of trial testimony, counsel for appellant e-mailed the prosecutors, stating that appellant was willing to enter a plea of guilty to aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder, with a guidelines sentence to be determined by the district court. Counsel for appellant indicated that appellant was experiencing stress with her situation and wanted her children notified immediately that they would not need to testify.

         When the parties returned to court on Monday, July 21, 2014, appellant filed a petition to enter a plea of guilty to aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder, with the understanding that she would receive a sentence within the range of 128 to 180 months. The district court accepted appellant's guilty plea based on appellant's sworn plea and factual ...


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