State v. Thurman, 20200651

CourtSupreme Court of Utah
Writing for the CourtChief Justice Durrant, opinion of the Court
Citation508 P.3d 128
Parties STATE of Utah, Appellee, v. Steven Douglas THURMAN, Appellant.
Docket Number20200651
Decision Date31 March 2022

508 P.3d 128

STATE of Utah, Appellee,
v.
Steven Douglas THURMAN, Appellant.

No. 20200651

Supreme Court of Utah.

Heard February 7, 2022
Filed March 31, 2022


Attorneys: Daniel L. Day, Asst. Solic. Gen., Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Brett Keeler, Salt Lake City, for appellee

Elizabeth Hunt, Salt Lake City, for appellant

Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court in which Justice Pearce, Justice Petersen, Judge Brown, and Judge Howell joined.

Chief Justice Durrant, opinion of the Court:

Introduction

¶1 Following his divorce, Steven Thurman planted a pipe bomb in the car of his ex-wife's new boyfriend. The bomb exploded and killed the boyfriend's eleven-year-old son. Mr. Thurman was charged with aggravated murder, a capital offense, and other counts related to making and transporting a bomb. He negotiated a deal with prosecutors under which he pled guilty to depraved indifference murder in exchange for the prosecution's agreement to drop all other counts against him and make several favorable recommendations to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole (Board). Now, over twenty-three years later, he remains imprisoned and argues that the prosecution failed to fulfill its end of the plea agreement.

¶2 But before this court can consider the merits of Mr. Thurman's claim, we must address the manner in which it was brought. Mr. Thurman brought this claim as a motion under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), or alternatively, as a motion for a misplea, contending that he has no other avenue available for relief. The State argued below, and the district court agreed, that Utah Code section 77-13-6 (Plea Withdrawal Statute) mandates that Mr. Thurman's claim be brought under the Post-Conviction Remedies Act (PCRA), which provides Mr. Thurman with an avenue for relief.

¶3 Looking to the plain language of the Plea Withdrawal Statute and the PCRA, we agree with the State that Mr. Thurman's claim must be brought under the PCRA. Because his constitutional challenge to his guilty plea can properly be considered only under the PCRA, we affirm the district court's dismissal of Mr. Thurman's motion.

Background

¶4 In 1991, Mr. Thurman placed a pipe bomb under the seat of the car of his ex-wife's new boyfriend. The bomb detonated a few days later, killing the boyfriend's eleven-year-old son. After finding evidence tying Mr. Thurman to the bomb, the State arrested him and charged him with capital murder and other charges related to the construction and transportation of a bomb.

¶5 Mr. Thurman initially pled guilty to aggravated murder in exchange for the prosecution's agreement not to seek the death penalty and to dismiss the other counts. But after being sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, he moved to withdraw his guilty plea. The trial court denied Mr. Thurman's motion, but we reversed the

508 P.3d 130

denial in State v. Thurman , holding that the facts to which Mr. Thurman had pled were insufficient to show the mental state necessary for an aggravated murder conviction.1

¶6 Following the withdrawal of his initial guilty plea, Mr. Thurman reached a new plea agreement with the prosecution, pleading guilty to depraved indifference murder on July 13, 1998. The plea agreement included four guarantees from the State:

(1) State agrees to dismiss the remaining counts. (2) State agrees to affirmatively recommend and stipulate that [the trial court] recommend to the Board of Pardons and Parole that defendant receive credit for time served from his arrest on May 17, 1991. (3) State agrees to affirmatively recommend to the Board of Pardons and Parole that defendant's case be reviewed and considered for a parole hearing as soon as possible, given the fact that defendant has been incarcerated for more than seven (7) years. [A]nd (4) State agrees to recommend to the Board of Pardons and Parole that defendant's attorneys be allowed to represent him at all parole hearings, at the discretion of defendant's attorneys.

¶7 Mr. Thurman was sentenced to an indefinite term of five years to life in prison. His presentencing report included recommendations from the prosecution that he be sentenced to an indefinite term of five years to life and receive credit for time served, but it did not include a recommendation that his case be reviewed and considered for a parole hearing as soon as possible or a recommendation to allow his attorneys to represent him at any parole hearings.

¶8 Seven months after sentencing, Mr. Thurman had his first parole hearing. And while the Board acknowledged that his first parole hearing was taking place quicker than normal, they explained this was because of an "administrative rule change" and did not mention a recommendation from the prosecutors. Additionally, one of the Board members reported that the Board had received a fax from Mr. Thurman's defense attorneys stating they would have attended the hearing but did not receive enough notice. The Board chose not to grant Mr. Thurman parole and scheduled his next parole hearing for 2011. At the 2011 hearing, the Board "determined that [Mr.] Thurman would serve the remainder of his life in prison."

¶9 Following the 2011 hearing, Mr. Thurman "moved to correct an illegal sentence under Utah Rule of Criminal Procedure 22(e), alleging that the Board of Pardons and Parole ‘illegally sentenced [Mr. Thurman] to life without possibility of parole’ and that the pleaded facts in his guilty plea did not support a second-degree murder conviction."2 The district court denied Mr. Thurman's motion, and the court of appeals affirmed.3

¶10 At this point, Mr. Thurman hired new counsel to work on his case. Working with new counsel, Mr. Thurman began to suspect that the prosecutors on his case had not made all of the recommendations to the Board that were part of his plea agreement. Following this discovery, Mr. Thurman filed a petition for postconviction relief under the PCRA, alleging prosecutorial breach following his plea agreement. A couple of months after filing the PCRA petition, Mr. Thurman also filed the motion we are considering today, seeking relief under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), or alternatively, declaration of a misplea. The district court placed Mr. Thurman's PCRA petition on hold pending the outcome of this rule 60(b) and misplea motion.

¶11 The district court dismissed Mr. Thurman's rule 60(b) and misplea motion, holding that he was required to bring any challenge to his guilty plea under the PCRA. Specifically, the court held that Mr. Thurman's claim of prosecutorial breach of his plea agreement fell within Utah Code subsection 77-13-6(2)(c)’s requirement that "[a]ny challenge to a guilty plea not made within the time period specified in Subsection (2)(b) shall be pursued under Title 78B, Chapter 9, Postconviction Remedies Act, and Rule 65C, Utah Rules of Civil Procedure." The court rejected Mr. Thurman's argument that the

508 P.3d 131

PCRA did not provide him with a remedy, stating that "[c]ertainly, the language of 78B-9-104 is broad enough to include defendant's claims." The court also dismissed Mr. Thurman's rule 60(b) and misplea motion on the alternative grounds that it was not "filed within a reasonable time" and that a "balancing of interests weighs against a finding of legal necessity that is required for a misplea."

¶12 Mr. Thurman filed an appeal, arguing that the district court erred in dismissing his motion. We have appellate jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(i).

Standard of Review

¶13 Mr. Thurman disputes the district court's interpretation of the Plea Withdrawal Statute and the PCRA. "We review questions of statutory interpretation for correctness, affording no deference to the district court's legal conclusions."4 Because we hold that Mr. Thurman's challenge to his guilty plea must be brought under the PCRA, we do not reach the district court's alternative grounds for dismissal.

Analysis

¶14 Mr. Thurman argues that a rule 60(b) motion or motion for a misplea is appropriate in this case because no other avenue for relief exists. To reach this conclusion, he contends that (1) the violation he is alleging falls outside the Plea Withdrawal Statute's requirement that "[a]ny challenge to a guilty plea" not made prior to the announcement of sentencing be brought under the PCRA and (2) the PCRA does not allow for claims based on prosecutorial breaches of plea agreements.

¶15 First, Mr. Thurman's interpretation of the Plea Withdrawal Statute conflicts with the broad language used in Utah Code subsection 77-13-6(2)(c). He relies on limitations from a separate part of the statute, subsection 77-13-6(2)(a), but we cannot import a limitation from one part of the statute to another when the Legislature chose not to do so. The plain language of the Plea Withdrawal Statute unambiguously requires Mr. Thurman's claim to be brought under the PCRA.

¶16 Second, Mr. Thurman reads the grounds for relief available under the PCRA more narrowly than they are written. He argues that the PCRA does not provide him with an avenue for relief because his guilty plea was "knowing and voluntary." But the PCRA does...

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