December 27, 2004
Breaking Case News: Guilty Plea Stands Despite Fact That Defendant Incorrectly Advised He Could Get Death Penalty
In Johnson v. Pinchak, also available here, a man who pleaded guilty to murder after his lawyer and prosecutors mistakenly told him that he risked being executed if he didn't confess is not entitled to relief, the Third Circuit holds. The court summarized the case and its holding as follows: "When petitioner, George Johnson, pled guilty to felony murder under the
misapprehension that he was eligible for the death penalty for that
crime, felony murder in New Jersey was not in fact a capital offense.
However, after receiving a sentence of life imprisonment with thirty
years parole ineligibility and after exhausting his state remedies,
Johnson sought federal habeas corpus relief alleging ineffective
assistance of counsel and involuntariness of his guilty plea. The
District Court ultimately granted relief on grounds that the state
court's mistake about Johnson's death eligibility for felony murder was
structural error, and thus, per se reversible.
The threshold question on this appeal is whether Johnson's claim is procedurally defaulted. Johnson did not raise the death penalty eligibility claim in his direct appeal to the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, nor did he address it in his first Post Conviction Relief (PCR) petition to the New Jersey courts. He first raised the claim in his petition for certification to the New Jersey Supreme Court; however, this petition was summarily denied. Over a year later, Johnson raised the death penalty eligibility claim in a second PCR petition, but that petition was filed more than five years after his sentence was handed down, and thus was time-barred under New Jersey Rule of Court 3:22-12. Rather than barring Johnson's claim on procedural grounds, however, the District Court invoked the "actual innocence" exception to the procedural default rules, which allows consideration of the merits of a claim, notwithstanding procedural default, to avoid a miscarriage of justice.
We conclude that, in so doing, the District Court misconstrued the scope of the actual innocence exception by applying it where the petitioner wrongly was led to believe he was death eligible, but where the death penalty was not actually imposed. Rather, we hold that the touchstone of the actual innocence inquiry is innocence of the sentence actually imposed, not innocence of a sentence for which the petitioner was merely eligible. We also conclude that Johnson's death-eligibility claim was procedurally defaulted because of his failure to bring the claim before the New Jersey state courts in accordance with their procedural rules. Supporting the procedural default conclusion are the facts that: (1) the New Jersey courts considering Johnson's application clearly relied on such procedural default as a separate and independent basis for their denial of relief, and (2) the five-year time bar under N.J.R. 3:22-12 is an adequate state ground, as it is strictly and consistently enforced in all but the most exceptional cases.
Accordingly, we will reverse the order of the District Court and remand with directions to dismiss Johnson's habeas petition as procedurally defaulted." More . . . [Mark Godsey]
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