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Legrand v. Young

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Southern Division

May 14, 2015

JOHN LeGRAND, Plaintiff,
v.
DARIN YOUNG, WARDEN; AND THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA, Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS

ROBERTO A. LANGE, District Judge.

John LeGrand is a prisoner confined at the South Dakota State Penitentiary. Doc. 1 at 1. LeGrand petitioned this Court for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, asserting that his conviction is the result of an involuntary plea and ineffective assistance of counsel. Because the South Dakota state courts have reasonably applied the proper federal standards to deny relief on LeGrand's exhausted claims and relied on independent and adequate state grounds to reject LeGrand's other claims, LeGrand's request for habeas corpus relief is denied.

I. Background

A. Underlying Conviction

LeGrand shot and killed R.J. Hein, who was an employee of LeGrand and who had a dispute with LeGrand over his wages. LeGrand v. Weber, 855 N.W.2d 121, 124 (S.D. 2014). At around 5:30 p.m., on April 16, 2009, after LeGrand had been warned by a mutual acquaintance that "there was going to be problems, " Hein arrived at LeGrand's Huron, South Dakota home. Id . According to LeGrand's factual basis statement, an insistent Hein entered LeGrand's home and was coming toward the bedroom where LeGrand had armed himself with a shotgun. Doc. 10-32 at 2-3. LeGrand shot Hein four times, fatally wounding him. LeGrand, 855 N.W.2d at 124; Doc. 10-32 at 2-3. Police found Hein's body on the driveway of LeGrand's home. LeGrand, 855 N.W.2d at 124. Two knives were discovered on Hein's person, and a third was found near the entry to LeGrand's home. Id . Hein had a 0.30 blood alcohol content. Id.

A Beadle County grand jury indicted LeGrand for second-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter, and possession of a firearm by a felon on July 29, 2009. Id . Randy F. Stiles and Donna Bucher were appointed to represent LeGrand in the murder trial. Id .; Doc. 10-27 at 31-32; Doc. 10-29 at 7. Shortly after the April 16 shooting, LeGrand moved with his family to Sturgis, Meade County, South Dakota. While living in Sturgis, LeGrand was arrested and charged in Meade County with nine counts of distribution of controlled substances (collectively Meade County charges). LeGrand, 85 N.W.2d at 124; Doc. 10-28 at 36. The aggregate maximum penalty for the Meade County charges was 175 years' imprisonment according to LeGrand's counsel in that case. LeGrand, 85 N.W.2d at 124 n.2.

On September 8, 2010, LeGrand signed a plea agreement resolving both cases. Id . Pursuant to the agreement, LeGrand pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and certain of the Meade County charges and the remaining charges arising from LeGrand killing Hein were dismissed. Id . The state agreed to request a sentence of no more than forty years for Hein's death and recommend that the Beadle County and Meade County sentences run concurrently. Id . During the plea hearing held that same day, the trial court[1] engaged LeGrand in an extended colloquy in which they discussed the constitutional rights LeGrand would be waiving by entering a guilty plea. Id. at 124-25. LeGrand acknowledged to the trial court that he had reviewed, understood, and signed the plea agreement, which expressly stated that he was waiving "any affirmative defense, including self-defense, and any claims of excusable or justifiable homicide." Id .; Doc. 10-26 at 14; see also Doc. 10-31 (plea agreement); Doc. 10-32 (acknowledgment of rights and consent to the plea agreement). LeGrand was motivated to enter into the plea agreement because of the Meade County charges, and he agreed that it was a fair compromise for the disposition of all the charges. LeGrand, 855 N.W.2d at 125. The trial court also gauged LeGrand's competence to enter the guilty plea. At the time, LeGrand was a high school educated forty-two-year-old who understood English. Id . LeGrand told the trial court that he was on anti-anxiety medication that helped him function and understand the proceedings. Id . Having reviewed and signed the plea documents with his attorneys prior to the plea hearing, LeGrand understood the nature and consequences of the plea documents. Id . LeGrand pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and the trial court determined that LeGrand's guilty plea was voluntary, knowing, and intelligent. Id.

Prior to being sentenced, LeGrand filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea to first-degree manslaughter and submitted a supporting affidavit explaining that he considered himself to have a valid self-defense argument. Id . After initially denying the motion as reflecting a mere change of mind, Doc. 10-23 at 14, the trial court allowed LeGrand to raise two new arguments-coercion and mental impairment induced by medication-as rationales supporting withdrawal of his plea, Doc. 10-23 at 14, 21. The trial court denied LeGrand's coercion rationale, Doc. 10-23 at 21-22, but postponed sentencing in order to hear more evidence regarding the medications LeGrand was taking at the time of his guilty plea and their possible effects on his ability to voluntarily and knowingly enter a plea, Doc. 10-23 at 24-26; Docs. 10-24, -25.

At a subsequent hearing on the motion to withdraw the guilty plea, the trial court heard testimony from a psychiatrist who had treated LeGrand (but who did not see LeGrand personally around the time of the guilty plea), Doc. 10-25 at 6-7; two physician assistants who had treated LeGrand while he was in the Beadle County Jail, Doc. 10-25 at 26-27, 33-34; and the Deputy Sheriff in charge of the Beadle County Jail, who had fairly regular contact with LeGrand while LeGrand was in the Beadle County Jail, including on the day of his guilty plea, Doc. 10-26 at 39. The psychiatrist testified that LeGrand had been prescribed three medications at the time of his guilty plea: a normal dosage of trazodone, [2] a normal dosage of temazepam, [3] and a high dosage of clonazepam[4] (twelve milligrams per day). Doc. 10-26 at 8-12, 17-19. LeGrand was on this particular prescription medicine regimen from July 30, 2009 to October, 2, 2009, after which he was taken off of the clonazepam. Doc. 10-26 at 12. The psychiatrist testified that, if LeGrand was impaired by the medications, he likely would have exhibited noticeable symptoms similar to alcohol impairment. Doc. 10-26 at 15. Neither physician assistant saw LeGrand on the day of his guilty plea, but both treated him in the weeks following (for reasons other than mental health), while he was still on the same dosages of his medications. Doc. 10-25 at 28, 35. They both testified that LeGrand did not show signs of impairment during those visits. Doc. 10-25 at 28, 35. The Deputy Sheriff in charge of the Beadle County Jail testified that he had talked to LeGrand on several occasions, that he familiarized himself with LeGrand's demeanor, and that on the day of LeGrand's plea hearing LeGrand did not appear impaired, foggy, or blunted. Doc. 10-25 at 41-43. The Deputy Sheriff also testified that the county jail kept a log of when each medication was administered to an inmate, which includes signatures of both the staff and the inmate.[5] Doc. 10-25 at 40. Following the testimony of all the witnesses, the trial court heard argument from both parties regarding the motion to withdraw the guilty plea, and concluded that LeGrand had not been impaired by his medications. Doc. 10-25 at 49-50. The trial court denied the motion to withdraw the guilty plea. Doc. to-25 at 49-50.

LeGrand was sentenced to concurrent prison terms of forty years for first-degree manslaughter and twenty years for the Meade County charges. Docs. 10-1, -2. LeGrand appealed his first-degree manslaughter conviction to the Supreme Court of South Dakota, arguing that the trial court erred in not granting the motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Doc. 10-4. The conviction was summarily affirmed by the Supreme Court of South Dakota on August 29, 2011. Doc. 10-3. LeGrand did not petition the Supreme Court of the United States for a writ of certiorari.

B. State Habeas Proceedings

On April 23, 2012, LeGrand filed a pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in the Circuit Court of the Third Judicial Circuit, Beadle County, South Dakota, challenging the validity of his plea and the denial of his motion to withdraw his plea. Doc. 10-6. After new counsel was appointed for LeGrand in the state habeas proceedings, he fi led amended and second amended petitions for writ of habeas corpus, adding ineffective assistance of counsel claims as a third ground for relief and clarifying LeGrand's pro se claims. Docs. 10-7, -8. The state habeas court held an evidentiary hearing in which it heard evidence regarding LeGrand's ineffective assistance of counsel claims, as well as some evidence on LeGrand's other grounds for relief. Docs. 10-27 through -30.

In LeGrand's due process challenge to the validity of his guilty plea, he argued:

(1) Applicant's factual basis statement alerted the court of a possible self-defense, defense of family, or defense of property claim.
(2) Applicant was not adequately canvassed on the availability of that defense of the burden of proof in a self-defense case.
(3) Absent adequate canvassing, the plea and the waiver of his right to trial was [not] knowing and intelligent.

Doc. 10-8 at 4. The court handling the state habeas action found that LeGrand had entered a voluntary, knowing, and intelligent plea to secure the benefit of his plea bargain, and denied LeGrand's claim that the plea was invalid. Doc. 10-10.

In LeGrand's challenge to the denial of his motion to withdraw his guilty plea, he argued:

(1) The trial court acknowledged self-defense as a tenable defense given the facts in this case, yet failed to address that issue in the plea colloquy when the Applicant's factual basis statement should have alerted the Court of the potential problem.
(2) Two of the five factors in determining whether a court should allow withdrawal of a plea are "actual innocence" and if the guilty plea was "contrary to the truth." State v. Schmidt, 2012 S.D. 77, ¶ 17, citing State v. Grosh, 387 N.W.2d 503, 506 (S.D. 1986).
(3) The trial court failed to honor the legal presumption in favor of withdrawal when it found the State would not be prejudiced by the withdrawal prior to sentencing.

Doc. 10-8 at 4-5. In denying relief on this ground, the court handling the state habeas action found no error in the trial court's finding that the request to withdraw LeGrand's guilty plea was the product of a mere change of mind, which ...


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