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Pearson v. State

Supreme Court of Minnesota

March 22, 2017

Larry Demetrius Pearson, Appellant,
v.
State of Minnesota, Respondent.

         Office of Appellate Courts

          Zachary A. Longsdorf, Longsdorf Law Firm, PLC, Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, for appellant. Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and

          John J. Choi, Ramsey County Attorney, Thomas R. Ragatz, Assistant County Attorney, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for respondent.

         SYLLABUS

         1. Because the record supports the postconviction court's finding that the testimony of the newly discovered witness was doubtful, the court did not abuse its discretion when, following an evidentiary hearing, it denied appellant's request for a new trial based on a claim of newly discovered evidence.

         2. Because appellant's claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel is procedurally barred by State v. Knaffla, 243 N.W.2d 737, 741 (Minn. 1976), the postconviction court did not abuse its discretion when it summarily denied the claim.

         3. Because appellant's claims for ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel fail under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984), the postconviction court did not abuse its discretion when it summarily denied the claims.

         Affirmed.

          OPINION

          CHUTICH, Justice.

         In this first-degree murder case, appellant Larry Pearson appeals from the denial of his second petition for postconviction relief. At issue is whether the postconviction court abused its discretion when it denied Pearson's request for a new trial based on a claim of newly discovered evidence and denied his postconviction claims asserting ineffective assistance of counsel. Because the court did not abuse its discretion in doing so, we affirm.

         FACTS

         The State charged Pearson with first-degree premeditated murder, Minn. Stat. § 609.185(a)(1) (2016); second-degree intentional murder, Minn. Stat. § 609.19, subd. 1(1) (2016); and the unlawful possession of a firearm, Minn. Stat. § 624.713, subd. 1 (2006), in connection with the shooting death of Corodarl Merriman.[1] Pearson pleaded not guilty on all counts.

         At trial, the State presented the following evidence. On April 22, 2006, Merriman and W.M. drove a van to Pearson's apartment building to purchase controlled substances from Pearson. When they arrived, Pearson told W.M., the van's driver, to step out of the van. W.M. followed his instructions, leaving Merriman in the front passenger seat. When W.M. asked to see the drugs, Pearson pulled out a gun and fired a shot at W.M.'s head. The bullet missed and W.M. retreated toward an alley. Pearson approached the van and began shooting. As Merriman attempted to move from the front passenger seat to the back of the van, Pearson fired one shot into the van's front passenger window, breaking it. Pearson then opened the front passenger door of the van, kneeled over the seat, and fatally shot Merriman. According to the assistant medical examiner, Merriman's death was caused by multiple gunshot wounds. She opined that the gunshot wound to Merriman's right thigh was consistent with a bullet that traveled through the front passenger window, striking Merriman while he was sitting in the front passenger seat.[2] When the prosecutor asked W.M. whether Merriman was "ever in trouble, " W.M. replied: "No. He was basically a peacemaker. I mean, he had his, you know, problems, but he was a peacemaker."

         Pearson chose to testify. He told the jurors that W.M. told him to get in the passenger seat of the van. Once inside the van, Pearson saw that W.M. had a baseball bat. W.M. told Pearson, "[Y]ou know what it is, " at which point, Merriman, who was seated in the rear of the van, pulled out a gun. Pearson retrieved his own gun from the front right pocket of his jeans and shot Merriman in the leg. W.M. then ran away from the van. Pearson tried to follow W.M. out the driver's side of the van, but Merriman pulled Pearson's arm toward him so Pearson shot Merriman a second time. Pearson testified that after shooting Merriman the second time, Merriman again pulled him into the back of the van, at which point Pearson shot Merriman a third time.

         The jury found Pearson guilty of first-degree premeditated murder and unlawful possession of a firearm. The district court sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of release for the first-degree premeditated murder conviction and, concurrently, to 60 months for the unlawful possession of a firearm conviction.

         Pearson filed a direct appeal, which was stayed to allow him to pursue postconviction relief. In his first petition for postconviction relief, Pearson argued, among other things, that his trial counsel was ineffective in her cross-examination of W.M. Specifically, Pearson argued that after W.M. testified that Merriman was a peacemaker, trial counsel should have asked W.M. if he was aware of prior bad acts that Merriman committed as a juvenile. The postconviction court denied Pearson's petition. In a consolidated appeal, we affirmed Pearson's convictions and the denial of his first postconviction petition. State v. Pearson, 775 N.W.2d 155, 158 (Minn. 2009). We explained in part that Pearson's claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel failed because the decision not to cross-examine W.M. involved unreviewable trial strategy. Id. at 165.

         In December 2014, Pearson filed a second petition for postconviction relief in which he raised three primary claims.[3] First, he alleged that newly discovered evidence existed in the form of an affidavit signed by J.B., who claimed he witnessed the shooting.[4] Second, Pearson alleged that trial counsel was ineffective when she advised him to decline a plea offer for second-degree murder. Third, he alleged that he received ineffective assistance from the attorney who represented him in his first postconviction proceeding. According to Pearson, postconviction counsel was ineffective in (1) failing to call W.M. to establish a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel and (2) advising Pearson to withdraw a conflict of interest claim against his trial attorney.[5] Although the State agreed that the postconviction court should hold an evidentiary hearing on the newly discovered evidence claim, it argued that the claims for ineffective assistance of counsel not only lacked merit but also were barred by Minnesota Statutes § 590.01, subd. 4(a), (c) (2016), and State v. Knaffla, 243 N.W.2d 737, 741 (Minn. 1976).

         The postconviction court summarily denied Pearson's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and scheduled an evidentiary hearing on the claim of newly discovered evidence. At the evidentiary hearing, J.B. testified as follows. He has a child with Pearson's sister and also helped raise her older child from a very young age.[6] He also was in prison with Pearson in the Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility at various times before November 2014. Although J.B. never saw the court files, briefs, or other materials relating to Pearson's direct appeal or first petition for postconviction relief, he did see our opinion on the matter. In July 2015, nine years after the shooting and almost six years after our opinion was filed in Pearson's first appeal, J.B. signed an affidavit alleging that he witnessed the shooting.

         According to J.B., a tan van with two occupants backed into a parking spot outside Pearson's apartment building. J.B., who was at an apartment in the same building with Pearson's sister, testified that he heard the driver call Pearson to the van and saw Pearson enter its front passenger side. J.B. could not hear anything that occurred inside the van, but he did see the van "rock" a minute or two after Pearson entered. J.B. provided inconsistent descriptions of the timing of the gunshots. For example, J.B. testified that he heard only "one gunshot" before W.M. exited the van but that he saw "several flashes inside the van" over the same period. J.B. admitted that he never saw Pearson, W.M., or Merriman with a gun. After the shooting, J.B. went inside and told Pearson's sister what he saw. J.B. admitted that shortly after the shooting, he spoke with the police and told them that he did not see anything and that he was somewhere else when the shooting occurred. J.B. claimed that he lied to the police because he did not want to be involved.

         The postconviction court found J.B.'s testimony to be doubtful for several reasons: (1) J.B. admitted prior untruthfulness to police; (2) J.B.'s statement was made nine years after the shooting; (3) J.B. was serving time in the same prison as Pearson when he made the statement; (4) J.B.'s statement was not corroborated by others (including Pearson's sister); and (5) J.B.'s statement was "fuzzy and contradictory" on several important details. Based on these findings, the court concluded that Pearson failed to establish one of the requirements of the newly discovered evidence test set forth in Rainer v. State, 566 N.W.2d 692, 695 (Minn. 1997) (explaining that the third requirement of the newly discovered evidence test is that the evidence not be "cumulative, impeaching, or ...


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