Nicholls v. State

Decision Date13 February 2009
Docket NumberNo. 20080022.,20080022.
Citation203 P.3d 976,2009 UT 12
PartiesCraig Duncan NICHOLLS, Petitioner, v. STATE of Utah, Respondent.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Craig Duncan Nicholls, Salt Lake City, petitioner pro se.

Mark L. Shurtleff, Att'y Gen., Kris C. Leonard, Brett J. Delporto, Asst. Atty's Gen., Salt Lake City, for respondent.

DURRANT, Associate Chief Justice:

INTRODUCTION

¶ 1 Petitioner, Craig Nicholls, claims that the district court erred in dismissing his Post-Conviction Remedies Act ("PCRA") petition. He presents two arguments: (1) due to mental illness, his plea was not knowing and voluntary, and (2) he received ineffective assistance of counsel. We affirm the district court's dismissal.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 After consulting with his girlfriend, Tamara Rhinehart, Nicholls agreed to kill Rhinehart's ex-husband, Michael John Boudrero.1 In July 2003, Nicholls called Boudrero and asked him to come to a construction site to help with a plumbing job. At the same time, Rhinehart was planning to attend a movie with her children to provide an alibi for Nicholls, who planned to show up late for the movie after he killed Boudrero.

¶ 3 Between 8 and 9 p.m., Boudrero arrived at the construction site, and Nicholls led him to the basement. Nicholls then shot Boudrero in the back and chest, dragged him into a storage room, stole property from him, locked the body in the storage room, and escaped in Boudrero's car.

¶ 4 Investigators quickly focused on Nicholls and Rhinehart as suspects. Nicholls used a prepaid phone card to call Boudrero to set up the meeting; the phone card was traced to Nicholls through video surveillance showing him purchasing the card at a Wal-Mart in Brigham City. Investigators also received tips from confidential informants who said that Rhinehart had told them about a plan that "was going to happen soon," by which she meant her ex-husband "was going to be gone." Rhinehart also told an informant that her boyfriend was going to kill Boudrero.

¶ 5 Nicholls was charged with one count of aggravated homicide, a capital felony, and one count of purchasing, transferring, possessing, or using a firearm by a restricted person, a third degree felony. The State initially sought the death penalty.

¶ 6 Nicholls agreed to plead guilty to one count of aggravated murder in exchange for dismissal of the second charge and a recommendation by the State that he be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Nicholls engaged in a colloquy with the court, and the court accepted his plea. Nicholls waived the time for sentencing, and the court sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

¶ 7 A few weeks later, Nicholls filed a pro se motion to withdraw his plea. In a memorandum decision, the trial court determined that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the motion because it was filed after imposition of the sentence, making it untimely. Within a month, Nicholls filed a pro se notice of appeal from the denial of the motion to withdraw his plea, but the appeal was dismissed when a docketing statement was not filed.

¶ 8 Nine months later, Nicholls filed a motion in the district court, pursuant to Utah Rule of Criminal Procedure 22(e), to correct an illegal sentence and arrest judgment. The district court again dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Nicholls filed a timely notice of appeal to this court from the district court's jurisdictional ruling, but we dismissed, noting that because he missed the deadline for moving to withdraw his plea, Nicholls could challenge his guilty plea only through the PCRA.2

¶ 9 Nicholls then filed a petition pursuant to the PCRA. The State filed a motion to dismiss and a supporting legal memorandum. The post-conviction court granted the State's motion to dismiss and later issued findings of fact, conclusions of law, and an order dismissing the petition. Nicholls timely appealed.

¶ 10 On appeal, Nicholls claims the district court erred in dismissing his PCRA petition. He argues that (1) due to mental illness, his plea was not knowing and voluntary, and (2) he received ineffective assistance of counsel. We affirm the district court's dismissal of Nicholls's petition.

¶ 11 We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(i) (2008).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 12 "`We review an appeal from an order dismissing or denying a petition for post-conviction relief for correctness without deference to the lower court's conclusions of law.'"3

ANALYSIS

¶ 13 The PCRA provides "the sole remedy for any person who challenges a conviction or sentence for a criminal offense and who has exhausted all other legal remedies."4 The specifically enumerated grounds for relief include that "the conviction was obtained or the sentence was imposed in violation of the United States Constitution or Utah Constitution," and that "the petitioner had ineffective assistance of counsel."5

¶ 14 Nicholls claims that the district court erred in dismissing his PCRA petition because his plea was not knowing and voluntary, thus violating the United States Constitution, and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. We will review each of Nicholls's claims.6

I. NICHOLLS FAILED TO DEMONSTRATE THAT HIS PLEA WAS NOT KNOWING AND VOLUNTARY

¶ 15 Nicholls first argues that prior to and during his plea hearing, he was "suffering from a mental illness," and as a result, his "plea was ... not ... voluntary and knowing." Under the PCRA, "[t]he petitioner has the burden of pleading and proving by a preponderance of the evidence the facts necessary to entitle the petitioner to relief."7 In an attempt to satisfy this burden, Nicholls points to affidavits by Dr. Daniel Spencer and Dr. William Weber.

¶ 16 In his affidavit dated January 11, 2006, Dr. Spencer stated that in August 2003, he received a request from Cache County Jail to visit Nicholls after Nicholls had been moved to OBS3 (suicide watch). On August 22, 2003, Dr. Spencer performed a mental health clinical assessment of Nicholls and diagnosed him with "depressive disorder ... clinical disorders, with adjusted disorder with mixed anxiety and depression...." He rated Nicholls 48 on the Global Assessment of Functioning scale ("GAF"), "suggesting a serious impairment in functioning with serious symptoms." However, in his notes dated August 29, 2003, Dr. Spencer wrote that Nicholls "denied having suicidal plans or intent," and is "ok to move [into the general population] at this time."

¶ 17 A month later, on September 26, 2003, Dr. Spencer again visited Nicholls. As to this visit, Dr. Spencer's affidavit recounts that Nicholls was "suffering from increased tension, depressed feelings, ... increased thoughts of death, ... and chest pain." In his notes, also dated September 26, 2003, Dr. Spencer wrote that Nicholls "is not planning on suicide," is at "moderate," but not imminent risk "of self harm," and "doesn't necessarily need observation at this point."

¶ 18 Dr. Weber did not examine or meet with Nicholls. His affidavit, dated January 9, 2006, merely states that he is "familiar with the Global Assessment of Functioning scale" and opined that a

score between 40 and 50 indicates serious symptoms, such as suicidal ideation, and constitutes ... a significant compromise in mental functioning. People who have a functioning GAF score between 40 and 50 are not competent to independently make major, life-impacting decisions, especially without appropriate stabilizing medications to assist them in their thought and logic process.

¶ 19 Nicholls claims that the affidavits of Dr. Spencer and Dr. Weber establish that his "plea was ... not ... voluntary and knowing because of [his] impaired state...."

¶ 20 A "guilty plea is not valid under the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution unless it is knowing and voluntary."8 A knowing and voluntary plea is one that has a factual basis for the plea and ensures that the defendant understands and waives his constitutional right against self-incrimination, the right to a jury trial, and the right to confront witnesses.9 A prerequisite to entering a knowing and voluntary plea is that the defendant must be mentally competent to enter it.10 A defendant is not mentally competent

if he is suffering from a mental disorder or mental retardation resulting either in:

(1) his inability to have a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings against him or of the punishment specified for the offense charged; or

(2) his inability to consult with his counsel and to participate in the proceedings against him with a reasonable degree of rational understanding.11

¶ 21 Thus, we have held that "[i]n determining whether a defendant is competent to plead guilty, the trial court must consider whether the defendant has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him."12

¶ 22 A trial court is not, however, required to order a competency hearing unless defense counsel, the prosecutor, or the custodian of a defendant files a petition alleging incompetence.13 In the absence of a petition, "[a] trial court must hold a competency hearing when there is a substantial question of possible doubt as to a defendant's competency at the time of the guilty plea."14 "In determining whether the lower court should have ordered a competency hearing, we consider only those facts that were before the [trial] court when the plea was entered."15

¶ 23 The question here is whether, based on the facts that were before the trial court when Nicholls entered his guilty plea, there was a substantial question of doubt as to Nicholls's competence. Our review of the record leads us to conclude that the answer is no.

¶ 24 Before the plea hearing formally began, the judge asked Nicholls, "are you under the influence of any drugs, medication or alcohol?" Nicholls responded, "[n]o, sir."...

To continue reading

Request your trial
27 cases
  • State v. Sessions
    • United States
    • Utah Court of Appeals
    • September 27, 2012
    ...the two-prong test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). See generally Nicholls v. State, 2009 UT 12, ¶ 36, 203 P.3d 976 (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052). First, Sessions must prove “ ‘that counsel's performance was d......
  • Winward v. State
    • United States
    • Utah Supreme Court
    • December 7, 2012
    ...to hold that counsel is ineffective based on the amount of time counsel spent working on the case or consulting with a client.” Nicholls v. State, 2009 UT 12, ¶ 38, 203 P.3d 976. ¶ 27 Mr. Winward's fifth claim alleges that he received ineffective assistance of counsel when his trial counsel......
  • State v. C.D.L.
    • United States
    • Utah Court of Appeals
    • February 25, 2011
    ...assistance of counsel claim, Husband must show that his trial counsel's performance was both deficient and prejudicial. See Nicholls v. State, 2009 UT 12, ¶ 36, 203 P.3d 976 (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984)). Failure to satisfy eithe......
  • Rhinehart v. State
    • United States
    • Utah Court of Appeals
    • November 16, 2012
    ...death sentence was “objectively reasonable,” especially where the inculpatory evidence outweighed the exculpatory evidence. Cf. Nicholls v. State, 2009 UT 12, ¶ 37, 203 P.3d 976 (determining that trial counsel's advice to accept a plea offer that spared the defendant a possible death senten......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT