Leger v. State

Decision Date24 November 2017
Docket NumberNo. 20150723-CA,20150723-CA
Parties Nicholas J. LEGER, Appellant, v. STATE of Utah, Appellee.
CourtUtah Court of Appeals

Nicholas J. Leger, Appellant Pro Se

Sean D. Reyes and Mark C. Field, Attorneys for Appellee

Judge David N. Mortensen authored this Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K. Orme and Michele M. Christiansen concurred.



¶1 After Victim accused Nicholas J. Leger of beating, strangling, and raping her, Leger pled guilty to attempted aggravated sexual assault. Five years later, Leger petitioned for post-conviction relief, which the district court denied. Because we agree with the district court that the claims made in the petition were either time-barred or meritless, we affirm the court's denial of the petition.


¶2 In November of 2007, Victim and Leger walked into a grocery store to buy cigarettes. Victim's face was red, bruised, and swollen; her lip was cut and swollen; and she had red marks on her throat. When Leger left Victim alone at the customer service counter, Victim passed a note, asking an employee to call the police. The employee complied and led Victim to a secure room, but not before Leger saw them and gave chase. Leger failed to reach Victim before she made it into the room, and he fled the store.

¶3 When the police arrived, Victim was crying, upset, and "nearly hyperventilating." She reported that before coming to the store, Leger had "beat, strangled, bit, spit on, screamed obscenities at, threatened to kill, sexually assaulted, and ultimately raped" her. Police found Leger hiding at a friend's house. He maintained that he had not raped Victim but had instead had "mad sex" with her. According to Leger, the marks on Victim's neck were the result of consensual strangulation during sex. Victim disputed this, and at a preliminary hearing she testified that her relationship with Leger never involved consensual violent sexual behavior.

¶4 As a result of a plea bargain, Leger pled guilty to attempted aggravated sexual abuse in August of 2008. Shortly thereafter, he filed a pro se motion to withdraw his plea, which motion he abandoned at the sentencing hearing in October of that same year. Leger was sentenced to a prison term of three years to life. Leger did not appeal.

¶5 In November of 2013, Leger filed a petition for post-conviction relief; he claimed that there was newly discovered evidence in his case, his plea was not voluntary, and his trial counsel's performance had been deficient. The State filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Leger's claims were time-barred or, alternatively, failed as a matter of law. The district court agreed that all but one of Leger's claims were untimely—because Leger was aware or should have been aware of the facts underlying the claims within one year after his criminal case became final—and granted the State's motion in part. For the one remaining claim, a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the district court denied the summary judgment motion and set an evidentiary hearing for the issue.

¶6 At the evidentiary hearing, the district court heard testimony from trial counsel and Leger. The focus of the hearing was Leger's claim that his trial counsel performed deficiently when he failed to retain a forensic nurse to review Victim's injuries. In Leger's view, a forensic nurse would have been able to show that Victim's injuries were caused "3 to 5 days earlier" than the events in question. Trial counsel testified that Leger never mentioned to him nor gave him reason to believe that Victim's injuries were old. And because Victim's injuries "were entirely consistent with the consensual sex that the defense intended to float at trial"—that is, a consensual strangulation defense—trial counsel determined that "hiring a forensic nurse to examine the injuries was not necessary." This defense was consistent with Leger's statements to police and trial counsel. The district court found that trial counsel performed effectively and that hiring a forensic nurse to testify that Victim's injuries were old "would have been inconsistent with and detrimental to Leger's defense."1 Accordingly, the district court denied Leger's petition for post-conviction relief. Leger now appeals.


¶7 Leger argues that the district court erroneously granted summary judgment in favor of the State on his petition for post-conviction relief. The district court's errors, he contends, are four-fold: (1) the district court erroneously concluded that Leger's challenge to the validity of his guilty plea was time-barred because he was aware of the facts supporting the challenge at the time he entered his plea; (2) the district court erroneously concluded that Leger's claim that the State withheld exculpatory evidence was time-barred for the same reason;2 (3) the district court erroneously concluded that Leger's ineffective-assistance claims were time-barred to the extent they relied on facts related to his challenge to the validity of his plea; and (4) the district court erroneously concluded that trial counsel provided effective assistance despite his failure to retain a forensic nurse.

¶8 For Leger's challenges to the district court's grant of summary judgment, we review the court's ruling for correctness; we will affirm if "the record shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Menzies v. State , 2014 UT 40, ¶ 30, 344 P.3d 581 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). And for Leger's challenge to the district court's denial of his petition, "we review the post-conviction court's legal conclusions for correctness and its factual findings for clear error." Tillman v. State , 2005 UT 56, ¶ 14, 128 P.3d 1123.

I. Summary Judgment

¶9 The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the State on all but one of Leger's claims. In doing so, the court determined that at the time he entered his guilty plea, Leger "was aware, or through the exercise of reasonable diligence should have been aware" of the evidentiary facts supporting the claims on which the court entered summary judgment. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-9-107(2)(e) (LexisNexis Supp. 2017) (providing that a cause of action for post-conviction relief accrues when a petitioner "knew or should have known, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, of evidentiary facts on which the petition is based"). Accordingly, the court determined that those claims were time-barred because they were not brought "within one year after the cause of action" accrued—in this case within one year from "the last day for filing an appeal from the entry of the final judgment of conviction." See id. § 78B-9-107(1), (2)(a).3

¶10 On appeal, Leger's challenges to the grant of summary judgment fall into three categories: the voluntariness of his guilty plea, the withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence, and ineffective assistance of trial counsel.

A. Voluntariness

¶11 In his petition for post-conviction relief, Leger alleged that his plea was not voluntary. Specifically, he argued that he was "coerced into pleading guilty and then coerced into withdrawing his September 15, 2008 motion to withdraw guilty plea." The petition did not explain exactly how Leger was so coerced, but, as the State points out, "Leger necessarily knew at the time he pleaded guilty whether he personally felt pressured into accepting the plea offer." Additionally, "Leger was present at the change-of-plea hearing, he responded to questioning from the trial court, and he acknowledged that he read and understood the contents of the plea affidavit." And the district court, in granting summary judgment on this point, seemed to acknowledge this. The district court listed as an undisputed fact that "Leger was aware, or through the exercise of reasonable diligence should have been aware, within a year from the time his criminal case became final of the evidentiary facts in support of his challenge to the validity of his guilty plea."

¶12 Leger claims that the "evidentiary facts" referenced by the district court involved "defense counsel's consideration of retaining a forensic nurse to examine the evidence of the victim's injuries for possible exculpatory or impeachment evidence." This is inaccurate. Those facts addressed one of Leger's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, and as to those facts, the district court denied the State's motion for summary judgment and deemed it necessary to hold an evidentiary hearing because "Leger was not aware ... that his trial counsel did not hire a forensic expert to examine the victim's injuries" until May of 2013. Discussion of trial counsel's failure to retain a forensic nurse is therefore misplaced in considering whether the district court properly granted summary judgment on Leger's claim that he was coerced into pleading guilty.

¶13 In addressing the question of voluntariness, Leger identifies only facts related to the district court's grant of summary judgment. Those facts are entirely unrelated to whether Leger's plea was voluntarily entered, and thus he has failed to carry his burden of persuasion on appeal. He has not demonstrated that there existed a dispute as to the material facts surrounding his claim that his plea was involuntary, nor has he shown that the State was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. We therefore affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment on this claim.

B. Withheld Evidence

¶14 Leger also sought post-conviction relief on the ground that the State had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence. He argued, "In April of 2007, approximately 7 months before this alleged crime[,] defendant told police, who documented the exchange, that [Victim] liked to be choked to achieve sexual satisfaction. This information was not disclosed to the defense. This information corroborated [the] claim by defendant that [Victim] enjoyed being...

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