18 A.3d 512 (R.I. 2011), 2007-64-C.A., State v. Laurence

Docket Nº:2007-64-C.A.
Citation:18 A.3d 512
Opinion Judge:INDEGLIA, Justice.
Party Name:STATE v. Norman LAURENCE.
Attorney:Christopher R. Bush, Department of Attorney General, for State. Norman Laurence, pro se, Defendant.
Case Date:April 27, 2011
Court:Supreme Court of Rhode Island

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18 A.3d 512 (R.I. 2011)




No. 2007-64-C.A.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island.

April 27, 2011

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Christopher R. Bush, Department of Attorney General, for State.

Norman Laurence, pro se, Defendant.



INDEGLIA, Justice.

Norman Laurence (defendant or Laurence) appeals pro se from a Superior Court judgment denying his application for postconviction relief. Laurence contends that the trial justice erred by dismissing his assertions that the actions and inactions of two attorneys rendered his pretrial representation ineffective. Laurence also maintains that his trial preparations secretly were taped while he was incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) and provided to the state's attorneys, who allegedly used the tapes to subvert his defense during trial. In this regard, he argues that he was entitled to discovery prior to the postconviction-relief hearing to prove the validity of his spying claims. This case came before the Supreme Court for oral argument on February 24, 2011, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' submitted memoranda and oral arguments, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown, and we proceed to decide the appeal at this time. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the order of the Superior Court.


Facts and Procedural History

In the direct appeal of the instant case, State v. Laurence, 848 A.2d 238, 241-49 (R.I.2004), this Court provided " [a] summary of the chilling facts" detailing the murder that Laurence was convicted of committing and an in-depth recitation of

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the pretrial, trial, and sentencing proceedings. Here, we recount only the facts pertinent to Laurence's application for postconviction relief and his presented appellate questions.


The Crime

On January 31, 1997, after Laurence's sometimes girlfriend, Betty Jo Gardiner (Gardiner), went to the West Warwick police with information implicating Laurence in a breaking and entering, Laurence and an accomplice arranged to meet with Gardiner. The pair then drove her into the woods of West Greenwich where Laurence dragged Gardiner from the vehicle and attempted to strangle her before he and his accomplice brutally beat her to death. The two men took to concealing their crime by discarding their bloodied clothing, repainting the vehicle they used to transport Gardiner, and destroying the vehicle's interior carpeting. They also returned to the woods to burn and later to bury Gardiner's remains. Sometime after committing the murder, Laurence began to divulge details of these unspeakable acts to Gretchen Nelson (Nelson), the mother of his child. Nelson also had witnessed some of Laurence's efforts to hide or destroy the evidence; but, fearful of what violence Laurence was capable of doing to her, she did not immediately contact the police.


Investigation, Arrest and Trial

Four days after the crime, on February 4, 1997, the state police made a traffic stop of Laurence and his accomplice. Then the police, who were assisting in the Gardiner investigation, invited the pair to the state police barracks to discuss her disappearance. During their conversation, Laurence requested to speak with counsel and called attorney John O'Connor (O'Connor), with whom he was acquainted through Nelson. O'Connor previously had represented Nelson in various legal matters. Laurence failed to reach O'Connor by telephone, but O'Connor did receive a message to call the barracks, and proceeded to make contact with the state police himself. The state police informed O'Connor that Laurence was not in custody, under arrest, or charged with any crimes. O'Connor advised Laurence to simply leave the station; Laurence did so.

In the months that followed, Nelson continued to keep Laurence's secrets about Gardiner's disappearance. However, on May 13, 1997, with the help of her attorney, O'Connor,1 Nelson brokered a deal for transactional immunity with the state, told the police what she knew about the crime, and agreed to testify as a state witness. That same night, a warrant was issued, and Laurence was arrested. Prior to his arrest, Laurence had spoken with attorney Paul DiMaio (DiMaio) at his office. DiMaio advised Laurence " that if he were to be picked up for questioning he should remain silent, call counsel, either [DiMaio] or someone else." However, during his post-arrest interview on May 13-14, 1997, Laurence did not request DiMaio or any other attorney. Instead, after the police read him his rights, Laurence signed a waiver form and confessed to killing Gardiner. Laurence subsequently was indicted for murder and conspiracy to commit murder. He also was indicted on the charge of

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breaking and entering, which triggered these horrific events, and the two cases were consolidated.

Attorney Russell Sollitto (Sollitto) represented Laurence at the pretrial hearing on the motion to suppress Laurence's statements to the police of February 4, 1997, and May 13-14, 1997. The trial justice denied the motion, but Laurence was permitted to address the court after the ruling. Laurence argued that Sollitto's representation was inadequate because Sollitto, who Laurence claimed had worked with O'Connor previously, failed to call O'Connor as a witness or raise the issue of O'Connor's alleged collusion with the police. Laurence vehemently maintained that O'Connor was his attorney at that time and, therefore, O'Connor should not have assisted Nelson in obtaining transactional immunity in exchange for information that led to Laurence's arrest. Laurence indicated that O'Connor's alleged conflict was relevant to the voluntariness of his confession of May 13-14, 1997 and his right to counsel.

Laurence also objected to Sollitto's failure to raise Laurence's alleged psychological and physical abuse by the police during his arrest, which Laurence alleged was supported by photographs of his bruised shin that Sollitto did not enter into evidence. Laurence lastly argued that Sollitto failed to focus the court's attention on whether Laurence even was psychiatrically able to provide a voluntary statement to police on May 13-14, 1997. Laurence represented to the trial justice that " [b]efore the murder [he] was told by half the State of Rhode Island doctors [that he] was suffering [from] a mental illness." The trial justice was not stirred to adjust his suppression-motion ruling based on Laurence's criticisms of his attorney, and, after this colloquy, Sollitto immediately moved to withdraw. Once Laurence indicated he was amenable to having another attorney appointed, the trial justice granted Sollitto's motion.

Ultimately, however, Laurence refused to work with several other court-appointed attorneys and eventually embarked as his own defense counsel. As part of his trial strategy alluded to at the pretrial suppression hearing, Laurence sought to subpoena O'Connor. In response, O'Connor filed a motion to quash, which was heard before the trial justice on January 7, 2000. At this proceeding, O'Connor testified that he never represented Laurence, and the reason he called the state police on February 4, 1997 was because he routinely returns phone calls from individuals at police stations who attempt to make contact with him. O'Connor explained that he was representing Nelson when he called the state police barracks on February 4, 1997, and, in fact, had represented Nelson on several matters in the past. Although the trial justice determined that O'Connor had " some sort of attorney/client relationship with Mr. Laurence on February 4, 1997," he also found that O'Connor did not ever divulge anything to the state police about Gardiner's murder. Instead, the trial justice concluded that the information Nelson provided to the police on May 13, 1997, that proved detrimental to Laurence was from her own personal knowledge. Accordingly, he granted O'Connor's motion to quash the subpoena.

On January 27, 2000, after a thirteen-day trial, a jury convicted Laurence of first-degree murder (committed as an aggravated battery), conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and breaking and entering. The trial justice denied Laurence's motion for a new trial, and then on April 25, 2000, sentenced Laurence to life in prison without parole for the murder, ten years for the conspiracy to commit murder, and five years for breaking and entering.

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The sentences were to run concurrently.


Laurence's First Appellate Effort

Laurence appealed his convictions, and we affirmed 2 on May 20, 2004. Laurence immediately petitioned this Court to reconsider or, alternatively, to permit the parties to reargue a claim that Laurence alleged " was not specifically addressed and ruled upon in [this Court's May 20, 2004] Opinion." The crux of his allegation was that in addition to the assertion of prosecutorial misconduct against O'Connor, which Laurence acknowledged this Court did address directly, Laurence maintained that O'Connor also breached his duty of loyalty to Laurence, allegedly O'Connor's former client, thereby denying Laurence effective assistance of counsel. Laurence said that this Court's decision of May 20, 2004, did not sufficiently attend to this conflict-of-interest argument even though it was properly raised and expounded upon in his brief. On May 27, 2004, this Court declined to permit reargument or reconsideration of this issue.


Postconviction Endeavors

Subsequent to this Court's May 2004 opinion...

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