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Court News Ohio

Misstatements During Sentencing Not Grounds for Withdrawing Plea Eight Years Later

A Highland County man did not suffer a “manifest injustice” that would allow him to withdraw his guilty plea when a trial judge told him that 21 years of his 35-year prison sentence was nonmandatory rather than mandatory, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court unanimously agreed to reverse the Fourth District Court of Appeals decision that directed a Highland County Common Pleas Court to consider George Straley’s request to withdraw his 2009 guilty plea to eight counts, three of which were for the sexual battery of a victim under 13 years old.

The Supreme Court justices issued separate opinions expressing why the appeals court decision should be overturned.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Judith L. French stated that while the trial judge misstated a portion of the sentence Straley agreed to serve, Straley never argued that he would not have pled guilty had he known some of the sentences were mandatory and the facts surrounding his plea “belie any such argument.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Patrick F. Fischer joined Justice French’s opinion.

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only, stating the Court only had to decide that Straley’s appeal was barred by res judicata, noting he did not raise the issue of the trial court’s error when he originally appealed his conviction in 2009.

Justice R. Patrick DeWine concurred, stating that the appeals court’s mistake is because of confusion caused by the Ohio Supreme Court’s series of rulings on types of sentencing errors that can be challenged outside of a direct appeal.

Justice Michael P. Donnelly concurred in judgment only, stating the trial court error actually gave Straley a more lenient sentence than required by law, and it was up to prosecutors to raise the error in 2009. Because Straley did not challenge the mistake in his direct appeal, he is not entitled to raise it in a second appeal filed eight years after his conviction , Justice Donnelly stated.

Justice Melody J. Stewart concurred in judgment only.

Sentence Misstated at Hearing
In 2009, Straley and prosecutors entered a plea agreement in which Straley would plead guilty to eight of 14 charges, including three counts of second-degree felony sexual battery against a victim under 13 years old. That charge, under R.C. 2907.03(A)(5), carried a mandatory prison sentence at the time of the plea agreement.

On a form that accompanied his plea, spaces were included for indicating whether a prison term was mandatory for each offense. In the spaces next to the sexual battery charges, the word “no” was handwritten in each of them. The form also indicated a “prison term is presumed necessary” for the battery charges.

At the sentencing hearing, the trial judge confirmed that Straley understood that he agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a prison term of 35 years and 10 months and the dismissal of the remaining charges. The agreement included three, seven-year terms for the sexual battery to be served consecutively and constituted 21 of the more than 35 years. However, the sentencing entry in the court’s journal contained no indication the prison sentences, including the sexual battery charges, were mandatory.

Straley filed a direct appeal of his sentence, and argued that the trial court mistakenly imposed mandatory sentences without first telling him they were mandatory. The Fourth District, in 2009, rejected the appeal in part because the parties agreed to the sentences and the sentences were authorized by law.

Second Appeal Filed
In 2017, Straley filed a motion to withdraw his original guilty pleas, arguing that under Ohio Rules of Criminal Procedure 32.1, he suffered a manifest injustice because the trial court imposed nonmandatory terms when mandatory terms were required. The trial court denied the motion, finding that res judicata barred it, and that Straley had not demonstrated a manifest injustice that would allow him to invoke the criminal rule.

Straley appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion to the Fourth District. In a 2-1 opinion, the Fourth District ruled that because trial court issued a sentence that did not follow the law, the sentence was void. And because the original sentence was void, res judicata did not apply, and Straley could challenge it at any time.

The appeals court found that the trial court committed a manifest injustice by misadvising Straley that his entire sentence was nonmandatory when 21 years of it was mandatory. Two of the appeals court judges described their opinion as an “absurd result,” based on Ohio Supreme Court decisions that voided sentences when trial courts misapplied sentencing laws. The Fourth District ruled the trial court was obligated to consider Straley’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The Highland County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office appealed the decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Rule Resolves Case
The appeals court did not need to consider the Supreme Court’s decisions about void sentences to decide Straley’s case, but only needed to apply Crim.R. 32.1 and prior rulings from the Court regarding the withdrawal of plea agreements, Justice French wrote.

The opinion stated that a “manifest injustice” is defined in prior decisions as a “clear and openly unjust act” and relative to a fundamental flaw in the plea proceedings that leads to a miscarriage of justice. The opinion noted that requests to withdraw plea agreements after sentencing are allowed “only in extraordinary cases.”

The Court majority noted the appeals court’s ruling is based on finding that the trial court’s misstatements led it to impose an illegal sentence, and that illegal sentences are void. The Supreme Court’s opinion stated that the sentence itself is not the issue, but rather the effect the misstatements had on Straley during the proceedings.

The guilty plea Straley signed stated the maximum sentences he could have received for each count he pleaded to, and a warning that the trial court could require those sentences to be served consecutively. The trial court reviewed the maximum sentences four times with Straley, and Straley said he understood them. The court also told Straley it had the discretion to impose more prison time than what was presented in the joint recommendation from Straley’s lawyers and the prosecutors, and Straley said he understood the judge had that authority.

“Despite the discretion, the trial court sentenced Straley to the parties’ agreed prison sentence of 35 years and 10 months. There is no manifest injustice where Straley was sentenced to the aggregate sentence to which he agreed in exchange for his guilty plea. He could not have reasonably expected to serve any less that that sentence,” the opinion stated.

The Court reinstated the trial court’s decision to deny Straley’s request to withdraw his guilty plea.

Issue Could Have Been Raised on Direct Appeal, Concurrence Stated
In her concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy noted that the principle of res judicata serves to prevent a defendant who had his day in court from seeking a second day on the same issue, and it “promotes the principles of finality and judicial economy by preventing endless relitigation of an issue on which the defendant received a full and fair opportunity to be heard.”

Straley could have challenged the validity of his guilty plea on direct appeal in 2009, but he did not. When the Fourth District affirmed his original conviction, res judicata prevented him from seeking to withdraw his plea eight years later, the concurring opinion stated.

Justice Kennedy wrote the Court majority did not need to decide the merits of Straley’s argument that it would be a manifest injustice to allow his sentence to stand before ultimately deciding that res judicata barred Straley from filing the motion in the first place.

Concurrence Raises Issue with Rules About Voiding Sentences
In his concurrence, Justice DeWine stated it was no surprise the Fourth District decided Straley’s sentence was void, saying “its conclusion flowed naturally from this court’s expansion of the void-sentence doctrine beyond its traditional boundaries to include a variety of sentencing error and from this court’s pronouncement that a void sentence can be attacked at any time…”

He wrote the Court must reign in the rules for allowing convicted defendants to challenge their sentences after filing a direct appeal, and called today’s ruling “a step in the right direction.”

State Should Have Challenged Decision, But Did Not, Concurrence Stated
In his concurrence, Justice Donnelly wrote that because the trial court stated the sentences were nonmandatory, Straley is actually serving nonmandatory sentences. Because that sentence is more lenient than allowed by law, it was up to the prosecution to note the error and file an appeal within 30 days of the trial court’s ruling.

Citing the Court’s 2006 State v. Saxton decision, the concurring opinion noted the Court has long held that defendants must abide by errors made in sentencing, and to promote finality and judicial economy, need to raise the issue on direct appeal.

“Because Straley is serving nonmandatory sentences, he cannot demonstrate a manifest injustice irrespective of whether the nonmandatory aspect of some of those sentences are contrary to law,” he wrote.

2018-1176. State. v. Straley, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-5206.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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