STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff–Respondent, v. DOROTHY FAITH HAINES, Defendant–Appellant.
Defendant Dorothy Faith Haines appeals the February 8, 2012 Criminal Part Order that denied her petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). She argues that she was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on her claim that her attorney coerced her into pleading guilty to first-degree aggravated manslaughter and third-degree hindering apprehension after she strangled her roommate, dismembered the body, and disposed of the body parts at various locations throughout three counties; and that the judge who denied her petition erred by ruling to the contrary. We affirm.
Defendant waived her right to an indictment and pled guilty to two counts of an amended accusation charging her with first-degree aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11–4a, and third-degree hindering her own apprehension and prosecution, N.J.S.A. 2C:39–3b. In exchange for her plea, the prosecutor agreed to recommend a custodial term of twenty-seven years with twenty-two years, eleven months, and five days of parole ineligibility on the aggravated manslaughter count, and a consecutive term of five years on the hindering apprehension count. According to the plea form, as additional consideration for the plea agreement defendant agreed to “waive any intoxication, mental health or self-defense issues.”
Defendant entered her plea on July 18, 2003. When the hearing began, defense counsel made the following representation to the court:
I've discussed this matter with my client on numerous occasions since the incident occurred. Judge, I explained to her that under New Jersey law she could force the Grand Jury to hear this case. The implications of that, what may happen, and with other charges to be charged in that indictment. And she had indicated she does not wish to proceed to a grand jury hearing, she wishes to proceed by accusation with the plea offer that has been made in this case, which is to count one of the accusation, aggravated manslaughter in the first degree, which would receive a 27 year New Jersey State Prison sentence under NERA, which would mean, by my calculations, 22 years, 11 months and 5 days without parole on that charge; and also a second count of hindering in the third degree, which would carry a 5 year flat sentence consecutive to the aggravated manslaughter sentence, making the aggregate sentence 32 years.
Also in this matter I've discussed several potential defenses with my client, including intoxication, several mental health related defenses, and self-defense issues. And she wishes that she does not wish to pursue any of those at this time, she wishes to proceed by accusation today.
After defendant swore to tell the truth, Judge Raymond A. Batten questioned her about whether she was entering her plea knowingly and voluntarily. The following exchanges between the judge and defendant are relevant to this appeal:
Q. Do you understand and agree with all that your attorney has just said on your behalf?
A. Yes, I do.
Q. Have you had enough time to meet privately with [your attorney] to discuss that issue?
A. Yes, I did.
Q. Do you perceive a need for further private consultation with [your attorney] on that issue before we go any further?
A. No, I don't.
Q. Are you pleading guilty freely and voluntarily?
A. Yes, I am.
Q. Has anyone threated you, coerced you, promised you anything that is not written down in the three page plea form which has been placed back before you at counsel table in original form, or otherwise said anything to you that has not been said on this record in this proceeding today in the presence of you, your attorney, the Prosecutor, and this Court that you believe constitutes inappropriate pressure to get you to plead guilty? That was a long question. Shall I try to shorten it up? I will. Has anyone threatened you or coerced you, done anything to you that you think is not right to get you to plead guilty to these charges?
Q. Has anyone said anything to you that has not been said before me today on this record in this proceeding with regard to the plea agreement in this matter and what you understand that plea agreement to be?
Q. Has anyone made any promises to you or do you understand that there have been any promises made that are not in writing on the three page plea form that [is] before you at the counsel table?
Q. Have you been able to read and understand the printed information on the three page plea form?
Q. Is the handwriting on that plea form, other than your signature and initials, [your attorney's] handwriting?
A. No. Oh. Yes.
Q. Have you been able to understand [your attorney's] handwriting and what he wrote on those three pages?
Q. Has he accurately written down the answers and information to questions that you have given him?
Q. Are those answers and that information true and accurate to the best of your information and belief?
A. Yes, Your Honor.
Q. Does the plea form itself fully, accurately, clearly describe the plea agreement that has been reached in this matter?
A. Yes, Your Honor.
Q. Have you consumed today, I've already asked you this but I'm going to ask you again, any alcoholic beverage, drug, medication, substance or thing that might affect your ability to think clearly?
A. No, Your Honor. They won't go to the liquor store for us so that's kind of out.
Q. Have you had enough time prior to this proceeding to meet privately with [your attorney] to discuss and review and have answered for you any questions, any concerns with regard to this accusation, the two counts of this accusation, the charges contained in each of the counts, your potential exposure should you be convicted of either one or both at time of trial, the State's burden of proof, your right to remain silent throughout the entirety of these proceedings, and your right to appeal any sentence entered by this Court, even a sentence entered consistent with this plea agreement, but the corresponding right of the State upon such an appeal by you to move to vacate the sentence, set it aside, vacate your pleas of guilty and reinstate these two charges or in fact proceed before the Grand Jury and consider evidence that might support additional charges or any other issues? Have you had enough time to meet with privately with [your attorney] to discuss all of that?
A. Yes, Your Honor.
Q. Have you had enough time to do that?
A. Yes, Your Honor.
Q. Do you perceive a need for any additional time for that purpose?
A. No, Your Honor.
Judge Batten also explained the charges in the accusation, confirmed that defendant was pleading guilty to the charges because she was guilty, and found that the record contained an adequate factual basis for each charge. After considering defendant's statements, the judge determined that she was knowingly and voluntarily pleading guilty.
Two months later, the judge sentenced defendant in accordance with the plea agreement. Although defendant spoke during the sentencing proceeding, she never suggested either that she wished to withdraw her plea or that she had been coerced into making it. In fact, defendant expressed remorse over her actions to the victim's family, who were present in court that day.
Defendant filed a direct appeal in which she raised the following arguments:
I. THE SENTENCE IMPOSED WAS ILLEGAL AND MANIFESTLY EXCESSIVE.
II. THE SENTENCE WAS UNCONSTITUTIONAL.
In our opinion disposing of defendant's direct appeal, we remanded for resentencing in accordance with State v. Natale, 184 N.J. 458 (2005). State v. Haines, No. A–6417–03 (App.Div. Feb. 3, 2006) (slip op. at 3–4).
Judge Batten resentenced defendant on March 3, 2006, imposing the same custodial term and period of parole ineligibility on the manslaughter charge that he had previously imposed but reducing the custodial term on the hindering charge from five years to four. Defendant appealed, arguing that her sentence was excessive because the judge had erroneously identified and balanced certain aggravating and mitigating factors. State v. Haines, No. A–2761–06 (December 1, 2008) (slip op. at 5). We affirmed, finding adequate factual support in the record for the judge's determinations. Id. at 6–8.
On December 9, 2011, more than eight years after she entered her guilty plea, and after two appeals, defendant filed a PCR petition in which she claimed for the first time that her attorney had coerced her to plead guilty. In her petition, defendant made the following accusations, among others, about her attorney:
My attorney did not discuss the details of my altercation with [the victim]. If he had, I would have been able to furnish him with information that would have confirmed that [the victim] attempted to choke me by pulling on a leather necklace around my neck․ [M]y employer at the time of the incident [ ] observed the rope burns around my neck and discussed them with me.
My attorney never explained the differences between murder, aggravated manslaughter and reckless manslaughter nor did he explain the concept of self-defense. He never advised me that there could be arguments made with respect to the cause of death. He never advised me that there were mitigating factors that could be presented and argued at time of sentencing and he never went over these mitigating factors with me.
When we discussed my case, because I told him, my attorney was aware that I was taking Paxil and Zoloft to address my psychological condition. I did not understand the adult criminal system and I did not know the law. I was too scared to say anything. He told me that if I did not take the plea, I could be found guilty of murder and get 30 years to life. He told me that it was aggravated manslaughter or murder, “take it or leave it.” He also told me just to say “yes” to everything and just say “I'm sorry.”
During an interview during the presentence investigation, I was made aware of a statement attributed to my mother about me digging practice graves at her house. I am a recovering alcoholic. During the time I stayed at my mother's home, I would stash beer in the house. My mother would find the beer and dump it down the drain. To avoid my mother finding and disposing of my beer supply, I dug holes and buried the beer in the yard. The trouble and incident that gave rise to her statement was a comment made by her fiancé after he fell into one of these holes.
My attorney never reviewed the discovery in this case with me. This lack of information coupled with my lack of understanding the law governing homicide resulted in my unwittingly entering an uninformed plea to aggravated manslaughter.
Following the parties' submission of briefs and oral argument, Judge Batten denied defendant's PCR petition in an oral opinion he delivered from the bench on January 30, 2012. Defendant filed this appeal.
Defendant raises only one argument for our consideration:
THE PCR COURT ERRED IN DENYING MS. HAINES AN EVIDENTIARY HEARING TO DETERMINE THE MERITS OF HER CLAIM THAT TRIAL COUNSEL WAS INEFFECTIVE BECAUSE HE PRESSURED HER INTO ENTERING HER GUILTY PLEA.
To prove ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must satisfy the Strickland two-part test by demonstrating “counsel's performance was deficient,” that is, “that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment;” and “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 694, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 2064, 2068, 80 L. Ed.2d 674, 693, 698 (1984); accord State v. Fritz, 105 N.J. 42, 58 (1987) (adopting Strickland standard). The Strickland test applies to challenges to guilty pleas based on ineffective assistance of counsel. State v. DiFrisco, 137 N.J. 434, 456–57 (1994).
“A defendant [is] entitled to an evidentiary hearing only upon the establishment of a prima facie case in support of post-conviction relief, a determination by the court that there are material issues of disputed fact that cannot be resolved by reference to the existing record, and a determination that an evidentiary hearing is necessary to resolve the claims for relief.” R. 3:22–10(b). To establish a prima facie claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must demonstrate the reasonable likelihood of succeeding under the Strickland test. See State v. Preciose, 129 N.J. 451, 463 (1992).
We affirm the order denying defendant's petition, substantially for the reasons that Judge Batten explained in the portions of his oral opinion rejecting without a hearing defendant's claim that her attorney coerced her to plead guilty. We add only the following comments. As the Supreme Court has noted,
representations made by a defendant at plea hearings concerning the voluntariness of the decision to plead, as well as any findings made by the trial court when accepting the plea, constitute a “formidable barrier” which defendant must overcome before he will be allowed to withdraw his plea. Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 74, 97 S.Ct. 1621, 1629, 52 L. Ed.2d 136 (1977). That is so because “[s]olemn declarations in open court carry a strong presumption of verity.” Ibid.; State v. DiFrisco, 137 N.J. 434, 452 (1994) ․, cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1129, 116 S.Ct. 949, 133 L. Ed.2d 873 (1996).
[State v. Simon, 161 N.J. 416, 444 (1999) (alteration in original).]
In this case, where defendant represented during a comprehensive plea colloquy that she had not been coerced to plead guilty, and that no one had said anything to her other than what was stated on the record during that colloquy; where defendant did not allege that she was coerced during any of the proceedings that were the subject of two previous appeals; where defendant appeared during two previous sentencing proceedings and never claimed that she was coerced; and where defendant first raised the issue of coercion more than eight years after pleading guilty; she has failed to overcome the “formidable barrier” of her sworn statements and Judge Batten's finding after a comprehensive plea colloquy that she had knowingly and voluntarily pled guilty. Stated differently, defendant failed to establish a prima facie case that her counsel was ineffective. Consequently, she was not entitled to an evidentiary hearing. Her arguments warrant no further discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11–3(e)(2).