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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, July 22, 2016

Some statutory relief does not apply to defendants who enter guilty pleas




The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that defendants who have entered a guilty plea cannot seek relief from that plea using a statutory procedure the Court says is intended by Tennessee law only for those who have been found guilty at trial.

At issue is error coram nobis, a procedure defined in Tennessee law that allows defendants to file a petition seeking a new trial if they believe there is new or newly discovered evidence that became available after the initial trial.

In the opinion filed last week, Clark Derrick Frazier was charged with first degree murder and pled guilty to second degree murder for a 2004 stabbing death. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He later filed a petition for post-conviction relief claiming his lawyer was ineffective leading up to his guilty plea. That petition was denied by both the trial and appellate courts.

Frazier then filed a petition for writ of error coram nobis, claiming he was entitled to a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence. Again, he was denied relief by both the trial and appellate courts. He appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted permission to appeal to reconsider a prior decision, Wlodarz v. State, which held that coram nobis relief was available, even when a defendant entered a guilty plea.

In its ruling last week, the Court emphasized that the very nature of a guilty plea, as well as the activities that lead up to such a plea, are contrary to the law that provides for the writ. The language of the statute refers to the words “evidence,” “litigated,” and “trial” – none of which are elements of a plea agreement – and never mentions “plea.”

The Court went on to say that “the trial court must ensure during the plea submission hearing that the defendant is waiving his right to a trial” and “one cannot simultaneously participate in a trial and waive one’s right to a trial.”

Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins wrote in the opinion that there are “significant and comprehensive procedural mechanisms already in place to safeguard the guilty plea process” and that the coram nobis statute is not available as a procedural mechanism for collaterally attacking a guilty plea.

Chief Justice Sharon G. Lee filed a dissenting opinion. In her view, the Court should follow the doctrine of stare decisis, adhere to the reasoning in its 2012 decision in Wlodarz, and hold that the writ of error coram nobis may be used in a collateral attack on a guilty plea. According to Chief Justice Lee, a defendant who has pled guilty and exhausted other post-judgment remedies should not be denied the opportunity to challenge a conviction when newly discovered evidence calls into question the factual basis and the knowing and voluntary nature of the guilty plea.

To read the majority opinion in Clark D. Frazier v State of Tennessee, authored by Justice Bivins, and thedissent by Chief Justice Lee, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.

Source: The Tennessee Supreme Court