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Taylor v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

July 8, 2019

Martin TAYLOR, Defendant Below, Appellant,
v.
STATE of Delaware, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

         Submitted: April 24, 2019

Page 561

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 562

          Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware, Cr. ID No. N1607016381

         Upon appeal from the Superior Court. REVERSED and REMANDED.

         Patrick J. Collins, Esquire, Collins & Associates, Wilmington, Delaware, for Defendant Below, Appellant Martin Taylor.

         Andrew J. Vella, Esquire, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, for Plaintiff Below, Appellee State of Delaware.

         Before VALIHURA, VAUGHN, and SEITZ, Justices.

          OPINION

         SEITZ, Justice:

         Before the Superior Court adjudicates a defendant guilty but mentally ill of a crime, the court must examine "all appropriate reports"— including the presentence investigation— and hold a hearing "on the sole issue of the defendant’s mental illness."[1] If the court is satisfied that the "defendant did in fact have a mental illness at the time of the offense to which the plea is entered," the court can adjudicate the defendant guilty but mentally ill of the crime.[2] If the court is not satisfied the defendant has a mental illness, or the facts do not support the plea, then the trial judge "shall strike such plea, or permit such plea to be withdrawn by the defendant."[3]

          Martin Taylor appeared before a Superior Court judge and offered to plead guilty but mentally ill for the July 2016 murder of Whitney White. After his counsel told the court that Taylor was competent to plead guilty, the court conducted a plea colloquy with him but deferred accepting the plea until a later sentencing hearing, when the court would have the presentence investigation. The day after the hearing, Taylor told his counsel to withdraw his plea. His counsel refused. Taylor then made pro se requests to withdraw his plea. The court would not consider them because Taylor had counsel.

          At the sentencing hearing, Taylor addressed the court and sought again to withdraw his plea. The trial judge refused to consider Taylor’s request because Taylor

Page 563

had counsel. Over Taylor’s objection, the court accepted the guilty but mentally ill plea to manslaughter and possession of a deadly weapon during commission of a felony, and sentenced Taylor to 45 years in prison.

          On appeal, Taylor claims the Superior Court plea proceedings were defective in several respects. First, the Superior Court failed to follow the statute’s "sole issue" requirement by accepting Taylor’s plea and sentencing him in the same hearing, and did not consider "all appropriate reports" relevant to Taylor’s plea. Second, defense counsel violated Taylor’s Sixth Amendment autonomy interest when they refused to withdraw his plea before the court accepted it. Third, the court should have honored Taylor’s pro se request to withdraw his plea for the same reason— to secure Taylor’s autonomy interest in his plea decision before the court accepted the plea.

          We sympathize with the court and counsel in how to handle this unusual and difficult case. The guilty but mentally ill plea statute is confusing. It contemplates a single hearing to review the plea, which must include a review of the presentence investigation. But, the presentence investigation is not available until after the plea hearing. The court and counsel also struggled to deal with a defendant suffering from a mental illness who sought to withdraw a plea that counsel genuinely believed was in his best interest. And, Taylor was caught between his counsel who would not withdraw his plea, and a court rule that allowed the court to ignore pro se filings when the accused has counsel.

         On appeal, we navigate this unusual sequence of events as follows. First, Taylor waived his right to object to the "sole issue" statutory requirement. The State and counsel agreed that the plea hearing could be conducted in two parts. Also, Taylor did not cooperate with the presentence investigation, and any misstep under the statute would not rise to plain error. Second, defense counsel’s refusal to withdraw Taylor’s plea violated Taylor’s Sixth Amendment autonomy interest to decide the objective of his defense. Taylor had the final say whether to withdraw his plea before the court accepted it. Having represented to the court that Taylor was competent to plead guilty, defense counsel should have followed Taylor’s demand to withdraw his plea before the court accepted it. Finally, under Superior Court Criminal Rule 11, before adjudicating a defendant guilty but mentally ill by plea, the court must address the defendant in open court and be satisfied that the defendant is entering his plea knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. Before the court accepted Taylor’s plea, he objected. Thus, Taylor could not have entered his plea voluntarily. We therefore vacate ...


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