Habeas and Plea Agreements: Walters v. Martin, Civil Action No. 5:17CV96
Sept. 7, 2022
John Walters is serving a forty-year sentence for burglary and malicious assault. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in Berkeley County Circuit Court, West Virginia.
Facts of the Case
In January 2012, Walters was alleged to have entered his estranged girlfriend's home using a crowbar and knife. He demanded she gives him money and other valuables. Walters struck her with a hammer and left after taking her phone and approximately $700 in cash.
He was arrested and charged with first-degree robbery, malicious assault, and burglary. The court appointed an attorney to represent him. In March 2012, the state offered Walters a plea agreement, proposing he plead guilty to malicious assault and first-degree robbery and receive a twenty year sentence to run concurrently for both charges. Walters’ attorney received the plea deal in March but failed to communicate the offer to Walters until July.
In July, the state extended another offer to Walters, proposing that he plead guilty to all the charges and receive a twenty-eight-year sentence. Walters’ attorney communicated this plea to Walters and informed him of the March plea offer also. By this time, Walters had lost faith in his counsel. He wrote a pro se motion seeking to compel his attorney to withdraw due to relational difficulties and failing to communicate the March plea. His attorney filed the motion to withdraw, and the court assigned a new attorney to represent him.
Walters's new counsel assisted him in negotiating a plea in November 2012, and he pleaded guilty to three charges. Prior to his sentencing, the judge received a report of Walter's lengthy criminal history and gave it significant consideration and weight. Walters was sentenced to forty-three to sixty-five years in prison.
Writ of Habeas Corpus Overview
Walters filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in the United States District Court stating that his first attorney was ineffective, citing Strickland v. Washington, for failing to disclose the March plea offer in time. Walters argued that his counsel had violated Missouri v. Frye, which requires that defense counsel communicate formal plea offers to their clients and properly advise their clients about the benefits and risks of accepting or rejecting plea offers.
The state moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Walters could not prove he was prejudiced by his attorney’s failure to timely disclose the March plea offer. In other words, the state argued that Walters’ attorney’s failure to timely communicate the plea offer didn’t affect the result of the case because Walters wouldn’t have accepted the March plea offer even if it had been communicated to him in a timely manner.
Issues Before the United States District Court
Did the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia reasonably apply Strickland v. Washington?
Did Walter's counsel violate Missouri v. Frye?
Discussion of the Issues
The court concluded that Walters’ first attorney was ineffective for not relaying the March plea offer on time, but the results of the proceeding would not have been different. The court affirmed that it is true the defense counsel must share the plea offers as per Strickland, but the defendant must also show they experienced prejudice as a result of deficient counsel. To show prejudice, Walters needed to show that the result of the proceeding would have been different.
Using Missouri v. Frye, the court reasoned that because Walter declined his counsel's offer to reopen the March plea deal he was not prejudiced by his counsel’s delayed discloser of the plea offer. Instead, he wrote letters to the Circuit Court seeking an alternative sentence or mercy to avoid prison. The court did not find an error in the previous court's conclusion that Walters appeared unwilling to accept the offer even though he stated in his petition he would have accepted it if it had been presented in time.
Based on the entire review of the records, the court denied Walters' petition. The court also denied Walters a certificate of appealability because he had not shown a clear denial of his constitutional right that a reasonable jurist would find debatable.
Several issues went wrong in Walters' initial case and his petitions that resulted in a harsh sentence. Here are a few actions that could have been done differently:
Walter’s defense counsel should have immediately advised his client about the initial plea deal in March and taken the time to thoroughly communicate the pros and cons of accepting the plea bargain.
Walters should have refrained from writing several letters to the courts undermining his offenses or the plea offers. His counsel should also have advised against it.
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