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Supreme Court of Louisiana.


No. 2016-KO-0178

Decided: May 12, 2017

Defendant was indicted for six counts of aggravated rape the state alleged he committed when he was between 13 and 16 years old. Children's Code article 305(A)(1)(a) automatically divests the juvenile court of jurisdiction when a child is 15 years of age or older at the time of the commission of aggravated rape and an indictment charging that offense is returned. After the indictment was returned, the case was transferred from the juvenile court to the district court. The district court then quashed the indictment because, among other reasons, defendant allegedly committed two of the offenses when he was between 13 and 15 years old, and therefore he was potentially younger than 15 years old at the time. The state then filed an amended bill of information in the district court charging defendant with six counts of forcible rape committed over the same three-year span. Defendant entered a dual plea of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity and proceeded to a bench trial.

The parties stipulated at trial that defendant committed the acts constituting forcible rape as alleged by the state. Thus, the only contested fact at trial was defendant's sanity at the time of the offenses. The state also attempted to orally amend the bill of information mid-trial to allege that all six offenses were committed when defendant was at least 15 years old. After trial, the district court found defendant guilty as charged on all counts and sentenced him to serve six concurrent terms of 40 years imprisonment at hard labor with the first two years of each to be served without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. The court of appeal affirmed defendant's convictions and sentences. State v. Harrison, 15-1044 (La. App. 1 Cir. 12/23/15) (unpub'd). In affirming, the court of appeal rejected defendant's claim that the district court lacked jurisdiction. The court of appeal erred to the extent that it affirmed the convictions and sentences for counts one and two, which the state originally alleged in the grand jury indictment defendant committed when he was between 13 and 15 years old.

Because of the evidentiary focus at trial on the question of sanity, the record is not well-developed with regard to the timing of the offenses. However, it is clear that the state originally alleged defendant committed two forcible rapes when he was between 13 and 15 years old (and therefore potentially 13 or 14 years old at the time), and committed the remaining four when he was 15 or 16 years old. For juveniles who are 14 years old, Children's Code article 857(A) authorizes transfer from the juvenile court to the district court for certain offenses after the juvenile court conducts a hearing to determine if transfer is appropriate. No such hearing was held here. For juveniles who are 13 years old, no provision of the Children's Code authorizes transfer from the juvenile court to the district court. Because the state failed to establish definitively before the grand jury that two of the offenses were committed when defendant was at least 15 years old, the automatic transfer provision of Article 305(A) could not confer jurisdiction on the district court over those offenses. Because the timeframe alleged by the state left it possible that defendant committed two offenses when he was either 13 or 14 years old, jurisdiction was either not transferrable to the district court or not correctly transferred to the district court by the grand jury indictment, notwithstanding the state's mid-trial efforts to cure the lack of jurisdiction by orally amending the subsequently filed bill of information.

It has long been established that lack of jurisdiction is a defect fatal to a criminal prosecution:

And, so far as nullity resulting from absence of jurisdiction is concerned, why that is a matter which in the words of this court in the case of Decuir v. Decuir, 105 La. [481,] 485, 29 South. [932,] 934 [ (1901) ], “may be invoked by any one at any time and anywhere.”

State v. Nicolosi, 128 La. 836, 846, 55 So. 475, 478 (1911) (on rehearing). Because jurisdiction was not correctly transferred from the juvenile court to the district court for two counts, the convictions and sentences for those two offenses are nullities. Therefore, we grant defendant's application in part to vacate his conviction and sentences for counts one and two. The application is otherwise denied and defendant's remaining convictions and sentences for four counts of forcible rape are not affected by this ruling.


I respectfully dissent from that portion of the majority's opinion denying defendant's application relative to the remaining convictions and sentences for four counts of forcible rape. In my view, defendant has asserted a valid argument for ineffective assistance of counsel relative to the stipulation of guilt entered by his counsel at trial.

At trial, the State offered a stipulation that the defendant committed the acts as alleged in the bill of information, introducing videotaped interviews of the victims as a factual basis in support of the stipulation. Noting his review of the videotapes, defense counsel informed the trial court that he would enter into the stipulation based on his understanding that, if called at trial, the witnesses would testify in accordance with their statements. Thus, under these factual circumstances, it is clear the stipulation was in actuality a plea of guilt entitling defendant to the constitutional protections provided in Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 89 S.Ct. 1709, 23 L.Ed. 2d 274 (1969). I find it noteworthy that defense counsel's stipulation went beyond simply stipulating to the witnesses' testimony. Defense counsel actually conceded defendant committed the acts. Compare State v. Hall, 47,564 (La. App. 2 Cir. 12/12/12), 108 So. 3d 188, 195–96 and State v. Harris, 470 So. 2d 601, 603 (La. App. 1st Cir. 1985), writ denied, 477 So. 2d 1123 (La. 1985).

Before a plea of guilty can be accepted, the trial court must determine that the accused has a full understanding of what the plea connotes and its consequences, specifically that the defendant understands the nature of the charges, his right to a jury trial, the acts sufficient to constitute the offense for which he is charged and the range of possible sentences. Boykin, supra; State ex rel. Jackson v. Henderson, 260 La. 90, 255 So. 2d 85 (1971). As the Supreme Court noted in Boykin, “a plea of guilty is more than a confession which admits that the accused did various acts; it is itself a conviction; nothing remains but to give judgment and determine punishment.” 395 U.S. at 242.

The record does not disclose that the defendant voluntarily and understandingly entered his pleas of guilty. In Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed. 2d 674 (1984), the Supreme Court set out a two-pronged test for proof of ineffective assistance of counsel: the defendant must show that his attorney's performance was deficient and that the deficiency prejudiced him so that the outcome would have been different absent counsel's ineffectiveness. An error is considered prejudicial if it was so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial or “a trial whose result is reliable.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. Evaluated under these standards, I would find the actions of defense counsel in entering the stipulation of guilt, without ensuring defendant received the constitutional protections to which he was entitled under Boykin, were deficient and the defendant was prejudiced by his actions. Thus, I would vacate defendant's remaining four convictions.

I write to point out that while the defendant's writ application is granted and his conviction for two of the six counts is vacated, the defendant's ultimate term of imprisonment is unaffected by this court's ruling. For each count, the district court imposed a 40-year sentence, to run concurrently with the sentence for every other count. Therefore, this court's action of vacating two of those counts because of a lack of jurisdiction still leaves untouched four concurrent sentences of 40 years. If one recalls that the defendant stipulated at trial to committing the acts of forcible rape on each victim, any perception that the defendant has scored a victory from this court's review of a jurisdictional defect should be tempered by the reality that such victory is hollow. The total sentence of 40 years at hard labor is unchanged.