989 F.2d 847 (5th Cir. 1993), 92-7132, Nelson v. Hargett

Docket Nº:92-7132
Citation:989 F.2d 847
Party Name:Willie James NELSON, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Edward HARGETT, Superintendent, Mississippi State Penitentiary, Respondent-Appellee.
Case Date:May 04, 1993
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Page 847

989 F.2d 847 (5th Cir. 1993)

Willie James NELSON, Petitioner-Appellant,


Edward HARGETT, Superintendent, Mississippi State

Penitentiary, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 92-7132

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

May 4, 1993

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Willie James Nelson, pro se.

W. Edward Hatten, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen., JoAnne McLeod, State's Asst. Atty. Gen., Mike Moore, Atty. Gen., Jackson, MS, for respondent-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.

Before HIGGINBOTHAM, SMITH, and DeMOSS, Circuit Judges.


Petitioner Willie J. Nelson is currently in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. He received a thirty year prison sentence in November 1988 after pleading guilty to the charge of selling cocaine. After Nelson's application for post-conviction relief was denied by the Lowndes County Circuit Court and Mississippi Supreme Court, see Nelson v. State, 576 So.2d 1270 (Miss.1991), he filed this § 2254 petition in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi on July 1, 1991, contending that: (1) the indictment returned by the grand jury was defective; (2) his sentence unconstitutionally exceeded his life expectancy; (3) he was denied his right to a speedy trial; and (4) he was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel. The state noted in its answer that Nelson had not sought collateral relief in

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the state courts, see Miss.Code Ann. § 99-39-1 et seq. (1992 Supp.), but expressly waived the exhaustion requirement and invited the district court to reach the merits of his claims. The magistrate recommended a denial of relief on grounds that: (1) the indictment was plainly sufficient under the applicable standards; (2) Nelson's sentence did not implicate Eighth Amendment concerns; (3) he had waived his speedy trial claim by pleading guilty; and (4) Nelson had demonstrated neither the deficiencies in his attorney's performance nor the resulting prejudice necessary to sustain an ineffective assistance of counsel claim under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). The district court, after considering the objections filed by Nelson, adopted the magistrate's report and denied relief. Nelson then filed a notice of appeal and the district court issued a certificate of probable cause.

On appeal, Nelson challenges only the district court's determinations of his speedy trial and ineffective assistance of counsel claims. We agree that Nelson's guilty plea precludes review of his speedy trial claim on the merits. We find the existing record insufficient to resolve Nelson's ineffective assistance claim, however, and therefore remand the case for an evidentiary hearing.


Willie Nelson was arrested on October 11, 1985 in Columbus, Mississippi after allegedly selling cocaine to an undercover police officer. According to Nelson, 1 he remained in custody until October 26, 1985, when Mississippi officials transferred him to Florida to face pending drug charges in that state. On November 17, Nelson pled guilty to the Florida offense and received a four year sentence. Upon his entrance into the Florida prison system, Nelson allegedly filed a "Writ of Habeas Corpus in reference to the Delivery of Cocaine charge pending in the Lowndes County Circuit Court." The Lowndes County court denied this petition on December 4, 1985.

The Lowndes County grand jury indicted Nelson for the sale of cocaine on February 13, 1986. Nelson maintains that he filed motions for a speedy trial in February and July 1986, requesting transport back to Lowndes County to face the cocaine charge. State officials apparently took no steps, however, to bring him to trial. On March 1, 1988, the Lowndes County Circuit Court denied one of Nelson's speedy trial motions on grounds "that the defendant is presently incarcerated in Florida and ... the State of Mississippi has no way to obtain custody until the expiration of his sentence." Rec. at 59. This holding was factually incorrect, as Nelson had completed his Florida sentence and returned home to Mississippi on July 31, 1987, seven months prior to the date of the court's decision.

On August 13, 1988, Nelson was arrested in Lowndes County and served with a copy of the February 13, 1986 indictment. After his family posted bail, Nelson retained the services of Donald Steighner, a Columbus, Mississippi attorney, to assist in his defense. According to Nelson, he advised Steighner that he had filed two speedy trial motions in 1986 and that he had witnesses who would deny his involvement in the cocaine sale. Steighner allegedly responded that Nelson had no need for witnesses because the amount of time that had elapsed since his arrest in 1985 would preclude the state from prosecuting him on this charge.

Whatever repose Nelson might have enjoyed after this initial consultation was shattered on November 15, 1988, when he received an urgent message from Steighner directing him to report to the courthouse immediately. According to Nelson, Steighner now informed him that he had been unable to locate any evidence of the speedy trial motions in the court records

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and that, based on his conversations with the district attorney and the trial judge, Nelson would likely receive a mandatory sentence of ninety years if he chose to proceed to trial. Faced with this substantial exposure, Steighner recommended that Nelson accept the plea bargain offered by the state. Under the agreement he would plead guilty to the cocaine charge and receive thirty years imprisonment in exchange for the state's promise to drop the habitual offender portion of the indictment, retire two pending charges to the files, and withdraw two additional charges currently before the grand jury. Nelson entered his guilty plea later that same day. The trial court accepted the plea and placed him in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.


After raising a multitude of issues in state court post-conviction proceedings and in the district court below, Nelson presents only two contentions to this court on appeal. He maintains that the district court erred in rejecting his speedy trial and ineffective assistance of counsel claims. The district court held that Nelson waived his right to a speedy trial by pleading guilty. This determination is clearly correct, for a defendant waives all non-jurisdictional defects upon entering a guilty plea, see, e.g., United States v. Jennings, 891 F.2d 93, 95 (5th Cir.1989)...

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