Ventura v. Meachum

Decision Date26 February 1992
Docket NumberNo. 279,279
Citation957 F.2d 1048
PartiesPeter Paul VENTURA, Jr., Petitioner-Appellee, v. Larry MEACHUM, Commissioner, Connecticut Department of Correction, Respondent-Appellant. Docket 91-2284.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Judith Rossi, Asst. State's Atty., Office of Chief State's Atty., Wallingford, Conn., for respondent-appellant.

Andrew B. Bowman, Westport, Conn., for petitioner-appellee.

Before CARDAMONE, WALKER, and McLAUGHLIN, Circuit Judges.

WALKER, Circuit Judge:

Respondent Larry Meachum, Commissioner, Connecticut Department of Correction, appeals from a ruling of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (T.F. Gilroy Daly, Judge ) granting petitioner Peter Paul Ventura's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The issue on appeal is whether the district court erred in failing to defer to certain state court findings of fact. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). We hold that the district court did so err and, accordingly, reverse the district court's ruling and remand with instruction to dismiss the habeas petition.


On November 10, 1983, Judge Anthony V. DeMayo of the State of Connecticut Superior Court for the Judicial District of Waterbury, following petitioner Peter Paul Ventura's guilty plea to two counts of sexual assault in the first degree, sentenced him to two fifteen-year sentences to run consecutively, a total of thirty years imprisonment. The State had originally charged petitioner with twenty-one counts of sexual assault in the first degree. Conn.Gen.Stat.Ann. § 53a-70(a) (West 1985 & Supp.1991). Six of these counts related to allegations that petitioner threatened his child's sixteen-year-old babysitter with a razor, punched her in the jaw and sexually assaulted her. The additional fifteen counts related to charges that petitioner sexually assaulted a fourteen-year-old girl while free on bond on the first set of charges. These counts alleged that, after driving the girl around in his car, petitioner took her to a wooded area where he threatened her with a razor and sexually assaulted her. 1 On October 7, 1983, the day before petitioner's trial was to begin, the State offered to accept Ventura's guilty plea to only two of the original twenty-one counts of sexual assault in the first degree; to ask for a fifteen-year sentence on each count, the sentences to run consecutively, with an agreed cap of thirty years; and to agree that Ventura's attorney retained the right to argue for less.

Later that same day, Judge DeMayo conducted a thorough plea allocution, which included the following colloquy with Ventura:

THE COURT: Now [Assistant State's Attorney] Markle has put on the record the state's recommendation. I want to be sure that you understand that because what it adds up to, really, is that the State is going to make a recommendation of fifteen years on each count consecutive, so that the total sentence the State will be asking for is thirty years, your counsel reserves a right to argue for less, you understand that?

THE ACCUSED: Yes, your Honor.

THE COURT: And, that is the sole--that is the sole condition of the plea discussions then, you understand that?


THE COURT: All right. Now, other than this agreement as to the upper limit of the sentencing, have any other promises been made to cause you to enter these guilty pleas?


THE COURT: You understand that the only thing that the court is planning and I will indicate to you that I am agreeing to this, is that the only agreement that the court has with you is that it will not impose a sentence in excess of the State's recommendation, you understand that?

THE ACCUSED: Yes, sir.

After the plea allocution, no part of which is challenged on appeal, Judge DeMayo, satisfied that Ventura had voluntarily and intelligently consented to the above-stated plea agreement, accepted Ventura's plea of guilty and fixed a date for sentencing. Between the dates of the plea and the sentence Ventura raised no challenge to the plea agreement and did not seek to withdraw his guilty plea. At the November 10, 1983 sentencing hearing petitioner's counsel, Martin J. Minnella, argued for a twenty-year sentence, ten years below the State's recommendation of thirty years. Judge DeMayo, however, consistent with the agreement as allocuted, sentenced petitioner to fifteen years imprisonment on each count, the terms to run consecutively. He also denied defendant's so-called "Whiting motion," which sought a continuance to allow the defendant to undergo a psychiatric evaluation at the Whiting Forensic Institute. However, Judge DeMayo recommended as part of the sentence that Ventura undergo a psychiatric evaluation at Whiting. 2 At the sentencing proceeding, after the court imposed the sentence, petitioner did not object to the sentence as inconsistent with his understanding of the plea agreement, nor did he seek to withdraw his guilty plea.

Petitioner's first sign of resistance appeared three months later when, on February 20, 1984, he filed a Motion to Correct the Sentence with the Superior Court for the Judicial District of Waterbury. The following day, February 21, 1984, he filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Superior Court for the Judicial District of Tolland.

The Motion to Correct the Sentence, argued before Judge DeMayo on March 16, 1984, alleged a number of inconsistencies between the sentencing and the plea agreement. It asserted that the defendant's counsel did not argue for a lower sentence as contemplated by the agreement, and that the sentencing arrangement had been changed between the plea and the sentencing, claims which Judge DeMayo rejected based on a review of the plea transcript. The motion also alleged that there had been ineffective assistance of counsel, and included as an exhibit a September 19, 1983 letter from Paul J. Yamin (the "Yamin letter") of the firm of Yamin & Minnella, Ventura's attorneys in the plea and sentencing proceedings. In the letter, which because of its importance to this appeal we set out in full in the margin, 3 Yamin represented to petitioner that he had an option of pleading guilty to only two of the twenty-one counts, that the sentences on the two counts would "run concurrently which would mean that you would serve a minimum of five years," and that Ventura would be sent to "the Forencis [sic] Institute" (the Whiting facility) for a 60-day evaluation with the possibility that he would serve at least some of his term there. Ventura's motion alleged that this letter had misled him as to the terms of the plea agreement. Judge DeMayo, finding the letter to be irrelevant to the Motion to Correct the Sentence, denied the motion and suggested that the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel "should be handled by the habeas corpus [sic] which [Ventura] has filed."

Ventura's habeas corpus petition before Judge Kline of the Superior Court for the Judicial District of Tolland focused specifically on the claim that, due to the Yamin letter, he had been denied his right to the effective assistance of counsel and that his plea was not, therefore, voluntarily made. Paragraph 12 of his February 21, 1984 pro se submission alleges that

Counsel induced the defendant to plead guilty on the written promise that the two sentences would run concurrent, with a minimum of five years and a cap of thirty years, with no recommendation as to sentence by the prosecutor, and the option to argue for a lower sentence. Said plea bargain was not followed.

Ventura attached the Yamin letter to his habeas petition as Appendix 3. On November 15, 1985, Ventura filed an amended petition, prepared with the benefit of counsel, in which he alleged further that

[p]rior to entering guilty pleas ... the petitioner was informed by counsel that if he pleaded guilty to one count in each file he would receive concurrent sentences and would serve five years.... If the petitioner had known that he would not get a concurrent sentence, would not get a psychiatric evaluation, and would not serve his sentence in a psychiatric facility, then he would not have pleaded guilty.

Judge Kline held a hearing on the habeas petition on June 28, 1985, during which he heard from several witnesses, including Ventura. Ventura testified that his responses to Judge DeMayo at the plea allocution did not contradict his position in his habeas petition. He claimed that his attorney Minnella, Yamin's partner, had advised him that the plea agreement as represented in the Yamin letter was a secret "closed-door agreement" which would be spoiled if mentioned in open court. On Minnella's instruction, petitioner stated, he lied to Judge DeMayo during the plea allocution.

Unable to hear the State's entire case on June 28, 1985, Judge Kline continued the hearing indefinitely. On August 7, 1985, however, without reconvening the hearing, Judge Kline issued a Memorandum of Decision that granted Ventura's petition and remanded the case for trial on the original twenty-one count charge. When apprised that the State had not yet completed its case, however, Judge Kline granted a Motion to Vacate the Judgment, and on September 20, 1985, continued the hearing.

At the reconvened hearing, Minnella testified that he, not Yamin, was primarily responsible for handling the office's criminal cases, including that of Ventura. He stated that he did not see the Yamin letter until after the sentencing and opined that the letter may have been intended to represent the best possible plea bargain, not one actually offered. Contradicting Ventura, Minnella testified that he had never mentioned a "closed-door agreement," nor had he instructed Ventura to lie during the plea allocution. Minnella testified that on October 7, 1985, before the plea was to be entered, the State for the first time informed him of its offer to accept a guilty plea on only two counts and to recommend a maximum...

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