State v. McFarland

Decision Date19 May 1997
Docket NumberNo. 22700,22700
Citation130 Idaho 358,941 P.2d 330
PartiesSTATE of Idaho, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Bobby Gene McFARLAND, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtIdaho Court of Appeals

Marty M. Raap, Wallace, for defendant-appellant.

Hon. Alan G. Lance, Attorney General; John C. McKinney, Deputy Attorney General, Boise, for plaintiff-respondent.

PERRY, Judge.

Bobby Gene McFarland appeals from his judgments of conviction for one count of second degree murder, I.C. §§ 18-4001, -4003(g), and two counts of robbery, I.C. § 18-6501. McFarland asserts as error the district court's denial of his motion to withdraw his Alford pleas. 1 He also claims the district court erred in sentencing him. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

The facts concerning McFarland's convictions are as follows:

Sometime after midnight on January 10, 1992, Harold Bart was brutally beaten, robbed, and then stabbed to death near the Kellogg Lumber Company, in Shoshone County, Idaho. On January 18, McFarland and his codefendant, Dan Graff, were arrested by police for robbing Julia Arnold as she was leaving the Yokes Pac 'N Save. The execution of a search warrant issued in conjunction with that offense turned up evidence incriminating Graff in the Bart murder. Graff admitted he was involved in the murder, and also made statements against McFarland. According to Graff, he and McFarland struck up a conversation with Mr. Bart while walking home from the grocery store. The three men engaged in brief and evidently cordial conversation, after which McFarland and Graff walked away. McFarland and Graff then decided to rob Mr. Bart. Acting in concert, they attacked Mr. Bart, beating and kicking him into unconsciousness. Graff claimed that McFarland then removed a bonehandled knife Mr. Bart was wearing from its sheath, and repeatedly stabbed Mr. Bart in the chest. McFarland and Graff then removed from Mr. Bart his leather vest, wallet, watch and two one-dollar bills. McFarland wiped the knife clean and hid it under some nearby crates, and the two men then fled the scene.

McFarland denied Graff's allegations, claiming to have no recollection of the events the night Mr. Bart was murdered, although he acknowledged he had woken later that morning in possession of Mr. Bart's bloodied vest. Based on this evidence, McFarland was charged with the first degree murder and robbery of Mr. Bart, and the subsequent robbery of Ms. Arnold. In February of 1992, McFarland, through counsel, requested that the court order a psychological evaluation. The court evidently denied the motion. 2 Still maintaining he could not remember what had happened the night Mr. Bart was killed, McFarland entered Alford pleas to a reduced charge of second degree murder and to both of the robbery charges. The court accepted McFarland's pleas and ordered a presentence investigation report. McFarland filed another motion requesting the court to order a psychological evaluation before sentencing. The motion was denied....

... On December 31, the district court sentenced McFarland to an aggregate term of life, with ten years' fixed, for the murder and robbery of Mr. Bart, and ordered McFarland to serve a seven-year sentence, with one-year fixed, for the robbery of Ms. Arnold. The court further State v. McFarland, 125 Idaho 876, 877-78, 876 P.2d 158, 159-60 (Ct.App.1994) (footnotes omitted).

ordered that the sentences be served concurrently.

McFarland appealed the convictions, claiming the district court erred in denying his post-plea, presentence motion for a psychological evaluation. This Court held that the district court did err in this regard and reversed the district court's denial of McFarland's motion. Id., at 881, 876 P.2d at 63. McFarland's sentences were vacated and the case was remanded for resentencing.

On remand, the district court granted McFarland's motion for a psychological evaluation. Subsequently, an evaluation of McFarland was conducted by Dr. Domitor, a clinical psychologist. McFarland moved to withdraw his Alford pleas, claiming that in light of the information provided by the evaluation, the record was insufficiently clear as to whether his pleas were entered knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily. The district court denied McFarland's motion, finding that there were no grounds justifying withdrawal of his pleas. The district court resentenced McFarland to the same sentences as originally imposed. McFarland appealed.

II. DISCUSSION
A. Proper Legal Standard

First, we find it necessary to address the legal standard the district court applied in exercising its discretion to deny McFarland's motion to withdraw his Alford pleas. Although the parties argued this point at the hearing below, the district court, in its memorandum opinion and order, did not articulate the discretionary standard it applied. Determination of the proper discretionary standard is a question of law, over which we exercise free review. State v. O'Neill, 118 Idaho 244, 245, 796 P.2d 121, 122 (1990).

The decision to grant a motion to withdraw a guilty plea lies in the discretion of the district court. State v. Freeman, 110 Idaho 117, 121, 714 P.2d 86, 90 (Ct.App.1986). Appellate review of the denial of a motion to withdraw a plea is limited to whether the district court exercised sound judicial discretion as distinguished from arbitrary action. Id. The exercise of this discretion is affected by the timing of the motion to withdraw the plea. State v. Ballard, 114 Idaho 799, 801, 761 P.2d 1151, 1153 (1988). As indicated by I.C.R. 33(c), a motion to withdraw a plea made after sentencing may be granted only to correct a manifest injustice. Id. The stricter standard is justified to insure that an accused is not "encouraged to plead guilty to test the weight of potential punishment and withdraw the plea if the sentence were unexpectedly severe." Freeman, 110 Idaho at 121, 714 P.2d at 90, quoting Kadwell v. United States, 315 F.2d 667, 670 (9th Cir.1963). A less rigorous standard applies to a motion made before sentencing, requiring that the defendant present a just reason for withdrawing the plea. Ballard, 114 Idaho at 801, 761 P.2d at 1153. In either situation, the defendant has the burden of proving that the plea should be withdrawn. Griffith v. State, 121 Idaho 371, 374-75, 825 P.2d 94, 97-98 (Ct.App.1992).

McFarland claims that because the original sentences were vacated, the case was essentially "back to square one" in terms of sentencing, and the less rigorous standard should have been used. The state asserts that, given the unique circumstances of this case, the stricter standard should have been applied by the district court in exercising its discretion.

Generally, where a judgment has been vacated, it is a nullity and the effect is as if it had never been rendered at all. State v. Barwick, 94 Idaho 139, 143, 483 P.2d 670, 674 (1971). Thus, this Court's opinion, reversing the district court's decision denying McFarland a psychological evaluation and vacating McFarland's sentences, nullified those sentencing proceedings. Consequently, on remand, McFarland's case proceeded as if the original sentences had never been entered. Therefore, under I.C.R. 33(c), because sentence had not been imposed, the district court should have utilized the less rigorous standard of just reason in determining

whether to grant McFarland's request to withdraw his Alford pleas. Although McFarland, on remand, may have benefitted from knowing what the ultimate sentence would have been, our holding places McFarland in the same posture had the district court not erred in denying his motion for a psychological evaluation.

B. Just Reason

McFarland asserts that the district court abused its discretion in denying his motion to withdraw his guilty pleas. When a district court's discretionary decision in a criminal case is reviewed on appeal, the appellate court conducts a multi-tiered inquiry to determine: (1) whether the lower court correctly perceived the issue as one of discretion; (2) whether the lower court acted within the boundaries of such discretion and consistently with any legal standards applicable to the specific choices before it; and (3) whether the court reached its decision by an exercise of reason. State v. Hedger, 115 Idaho 598, 600, 768 P.2d 1331, 1333 (1989).

Withdrawal of a guilty plea before sentence is imposed is not an automatic right, and the defendant has the burden of proving that the plea should be allowed to be withdrawn. State v. Dopp, 124 Idaho 481, 485, 861 P.2d 51, 55 (1993). A defendant seeking to withdraw a guilty plea before sentencing must first show a just reason for withdrawing the plea. Id. Once the defendant has met this burden, the state may avoid a withdrawal of the plea by demonstrating the existence of prejudice to the state. Id.; State v. Henderson, 113 Idaho 411, 414, 744 P.2d 795, 798 (Ct.App.1987). The defendant's failure to present and support a plausible reason will dictate against granting withdrawal, even absent prejudice to the prosecution. Dopp, 124 Idaho at 485, 861 P.2d at 55; Henderson, 113 Idaho at 414, 744 P.2d at 798.

McFarland claims that the results of his psychological evaluation cast doubt on whether he entered the pleas knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently. As support, McFarland quotes portions of his psychological evaluation. In particular, McFarland points out that he had an I.Q. score of 72, which, according to Dr. Domitor, placed him "within the range of borderline mental retardation." McFarland argues that he had a significant verbal memory deficit and a reading ability at the first percentile level. Furthermore, according to the evaluation, "it will be necessary for his attorney to repeat important information on a frequent basis so that Mr. McFarland might be able to retain this. His ability to understand legal abstractions is impaired and so information must be presented in as concrete a manner as possible."

On November 16, 1992, the district court held a...

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