Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dickerson v. State[1]

Opinion handed down October 28, 2008
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Missouri Supreme Court held that an evidentiary hearing under a motion for post-conviction relief was warranted based on appellant’s claim that his trial counsel was ineffective and that the absence of facts in the record was not enough to refute the appellant’s claims. The criminal defense attorney had failed to object to the client’s shackling at trial. The record did not say whether appellant had been shackled.[1]

I. Facts and Holding[2]

In 2003, appellant Bryan Dickerson was involved in a bar fight with Frederick “Buddy” Jones, in St. Francois County. Dickerson punched Jones in the face, knocking him to the ground. Jones fell and hit his head on the concrete floor of the bar and died after being in a coma for four months. The state charged Dickerson with second-degree murder. The jury convicted him of voluntary manslaughter, and Dickerson was sentenced to life in prison.

Dickerson’s conviction was affirmed on appeal. He filed a motion for post-conviction relief under Missouri Rule of Criminal Procedure 29.15.[3] Dickerson argued that he was provided ineffective assistance of trial counsel because his lawyer failed to object to Dickerson’s shackling during trial.[4] Although Dickerson’s counsel filed a pre-trial motion to prohibit use of physical restraints on Dickerson during trial, the court never ruled on the motion. The record was silent as to whether Dickerson actually wore shackles during his trial.

The motion court overruled Dickerson’s Rule 29.15 motion without an evidentiary hearing. Upon Dickerson’s appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the motion court’s judgment, holding that the motion court erred in its determination that the record’s silence regarding whether Dickerson was actually shackled was enough to refute his allegation.[5]

II. Legal Background

Missouri Rule of Criminal Procedure 29.15 governs motions for post-conviction requests for relief in sentencing and relief from conviction, including claims of ineffective counsel.[6] A movant is entitled to an evidentiary hearing under Rule 29.15. But the motion must alleges facts, rather than conclusions, that warrant relief. The facts must not be refuted by the case files and records, and the matters which movant complains of must have resulted in prejudice to the movant.[7] Specifically, for claims of ineffective assistance of counsel a court should hold an evidentiary hearing if the movant alleges “facts, not refuted by the record, showing that counsel’s performance did not conform to the degree of skill, care, and diligence of a reasonably competent attorney and that movant was thereby prejudiced.”[8]

III. Commentary

In Dickerson, the Missouri Supreme Court addressed whether the record’s absence of facts – was Dickerson shackled and, if so, did the jury see it? – provided sufficient evidence to refute Dickerson’s allegation. The Court held that the allegation was not refuted by the record because the “mere absence of any reference to shackling on the record does not prove Dickerson’s allegation that he was shackled at trial to be false.”[9] However, in an attempt to limit its opinion, the Court stressed that Dickerson’s case was not one where he raised “after-the-fact allegations of shackling” where shackling was not previously contemplated nor occurred.[10] Emphasizing that Dickerson raised the shackling issue in a pre-trial motion, the Court noted that this motion suggests that facts may exist to support his claim.[11]

This decision clarifies what it means when a movant’s allegation is “not refuted by the record” when the record makes no reference to the movant’s allegations and a court must determine whether it should grant an evidentiary hearing under Rule 29.15. This may result in courts more commonly granting evidentiary hearings under post-conviction motions. As a result, Dickerson possibly broadens the circumstances in which post-conviction relief may be allowed. However, the Court’s limitation may be narrowly construed to the particular facts of the case.

- Meghan E. Lewis

[1] No. SC 89142 (Mo. 2008) (en banc). The West reporter citation is Dickerson v. State, 269 S.W.3d 889 (Mo. 2008) (en banc).
[2] Id. at *1-4.
[3] Mo. R. Crim. P. 29.15.
[4] Dickerson, at *1. Dickerson also claimed that his trial counsel was ineffective “for failing to object to the medical examiner’s description of Jones’ death as a ‘homicide.’” Id. Dickerson also claimed that his appellate counsel was ineffective on the grounds that his counsel failed to appeal the trial court’s admission of evidence that Dickerson had been in a different bar fight prior to his bar fight with Jones. Id.
[5] Id. at *3. The Missouri Supreme Court also granted remand regarding the claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel that was not addressed by the motion court and denied Dickerson’s claim of ineffective counsel based on counsel’s failure to object to the medical examiner’s use of the term “homicide” when referring to Jones’ death. Id. at *5.
[6] Mo. R. Crim. P. 29.15(a).
[7] Ringo v. State, 120 S.W.3d 743, 745 (Mo. 2003) (en banc).
[8] State v. Brooks, 960 S.W.2d 479, 497 (Mo. 1997) (en banc).
[9] Dickerson, at *3.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.