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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

          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.

          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illness, or the facts do not support the plea, then the trial judge "shall strike such plea, or permit such plea to be withdrawn by the defendant."[3]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 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 Taylor's conviction, and remand to the Superior Court for his counsel to review with Taylor whether he should withdraw his plea. If he is competent to make the decision and insists on withdrawing his guilty but mentally ill plea, the court should allow Taylor to withdraw his plea and proceed to trial.

         I.

         On July 20, 2016, Wilmington Police responded to a report of an unresponsive person in a residence. They found Whitney White dead from multiple stab wounds. Witnesses identified Taylor as the likely assailant. The next day police located Taylor and saw multiple knife wounds on his body. The police took him to the hospital and then arrested him for the killing.

         After a psychological evaluation, a psychologist concluded that Taylor had a low IQ score and had been diagnosed by various professionals with Schizoaffective Disorder (Bipolar Type), Posttraumatic Stress Disorder with Dissociative Symptoms of Depersonalization, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder.[4] Physicians prescribed medication for his disorders, but Taylor failed to take them consistently. The psychologist concluded "it would be expected that [the symptoms of his disorders] were present in his life at the time of the current alleged offense."[5]

         After an unsuccessful motion to suppress Taylor's statement to police, on October 13, 2017, Taylor appeared before the Superior Court to plead guilty but mentally ill to manslaughter and possession of a deadly weapon during commission of a felony. Defense counsel told the court that Taylor was competent to participate in the proceedings and to enter his plea knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.[6]During the hearing the judge noted a discontinuity in the statute-the plea hearing occurs before the presentence report is available, but the presentence report must be reviewed as part of the plea hearing.[7] After discussing with counsel the requirements of the statute, the court asked if counsel agreed that the court could proceed by conducting the hearing, but defer accepting the plea until sentencing, when the court would have the presentence report.[8] All counsel agreed with that procedure.[9] The court reviewed the Truth in Sentencing form, conducted a plea colloquy with Taylor, and Taylor pled guilty but mentally ill to the charges. The court deferred accepting the plea until the sentencing hearing.

         The day after the hearing, Taylor wrote his defense counsel and asked them to withdraw his plea. On October 30, 2017, Taylor wrote another letter to his counsel, again seeking to withdraw his plea and raised a self-defense issue based on research he had done. On November 2, 2017, his counsel responded to these letters. Their first letter explained that, after reviewing the applicable standard, they "found there is no legal basis upon which to make a motion to withdraw your guilty plea."[10]Their second letter explained in detail why, in their opinion, self-defense could not be asserted successfully.[11]

         After his counsel twice refused to withdraw his plea, on November 15, 2017, Taylor filed a pro se motion to withdraw his plea claiming that he was "coerced into accepting the plea without acknowledging the defense I wanted to use or explaining to me any other options."[12] According to Taylor, "[w]henever I meet with my attorney's their only solution is to take this plea that I continued to tell them I didn't want to accept."[13] The court wrote counsel and explained that Superior Court Criminal Rule 47 prohibits the court from accepting pro se filings while a defendant is represented by counsel. Further, the court stated that when the defendant has pled guilty but mentally ill, the court "should be circumspect before permitting a criminal defendant to proceed on his own."[14] The court noted that "Mr. Taylor has able counsel for a reason, that may include protecting him from his own poor judgment."[15] Thus, according to the court, "unless and until Mr. Taylor's lawyers file a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, the Court will not consider his pro se pleading."[16] The court also refused to consider another pro se filing seeking to withdraw the plea.[17]

         Prior to the sentencing hearing, trial counsel wrote a letter to the court advocating for a minimum mandatory sentence of 27 years. The letter highlighted Taylor's intellectual and mental limitations, history of abuse, and drug use. Counsel also noted Taylor's "recent overtures to withdraw his plea" and noted that Taylor's desire to withdraw his plea "in large part stems from his fixation with pursuing a self-defense claim at trial."[18] Counsel further told the court that it was the belief of "[c]ounsel and Dr. Cooney-Koss," Taylor's psychological expert, "that Mr. Taylor's fixation with a self-defense claim and withdrawal of his guilty plea may in large part be a product of his mental illness and irrational thought process."[19] According to counsel, Taylor's "fixation" with pursuing a self-defense claim and withdrawing his plea were manifestations of his mental illness.[20]

         At the January 9, 2018 sentencing hearing, Taylor's counsel argued for the minimum mandatory sentence. Addressing Taylor's earlier requests to withdraw his plea, defense counsel asked that the court view these requests not as a lack of remorse, "but really as a further projection of his mental illness."[21] Defense counsel asked the court to find Taylor guilty but mentally ill because "[t]he Court didn't make that finding at the time the plea was tendered."[22]

         Before the court accepted Taylor's earlier plea, Taylor addressed the court and again asked to withdraw his plea, claiming that he "felt pressured" and "manipulated" and that his counsel "degraded" him, called him a "thug," "us[ed] a lot of profanity towards" him, and "scream[ed]" at him.[23] The court once again held that it would only accept a motion from counsel, and confirmed that counsel was not moving to withdraw the plea.[24] As they had done before, Taylor's counsel referred to Taylor's self-defense argument as a "fixation."[25] The court ruled that "to the extent that the record needs a finding of mental illness, the Court will make that finding based upon the documents that have been presented," and accepted the plea.[26] The court sentenced Taylor to 45 years in prison.

         II.

         Under Delaware law, a defendant is guilty but mentally ill of a criminal offense when:

the trier of fact determines that, at the time of the conduct charged, a defendant suffered from a mental illness or serious mental disorder which substantially disturbed such person's thinking, feeling or behavior and/or that such mental illness or serious mental disorder left such person with insufficient willpower to choose whether the person would do the act or refrain from doing it, although physically capable, the trial of fact shall return a verdict of "guilty, but mentally ill."[27]

         The procedure to plead guilty but mentally ill is set forth in § 408(a):

Where a defendant's defense is based upon allegations which, if true, would be grounds for a verdict of "guilty, but mentally ill" or the defendant desires to enter a plea to that effect, no finding of "guilty, but mentally ill" shall be rendered until the trier of fact has examined all appropriate reports (including the presentence investigation); has held a hearing on the sole issue of the defendant's mental illness, at which either party may present evidence; and is satisfied that the defendant did in fact have a mental illness at the time of the offense to which the plea is entered. Where the trier of fact, after such hearing, is not satisfied that the defendant had a mental illness at the time of the offense, or determines that the facts do not support a "guilty, but mentally ill" plea, the trier of fact shall strike such plea, or permit such plea to be withdrawn by the defendant. A defendant whose plea is not accepted by the trier of fact shall be entitled to a jury trial, except that if a defendant subsequently waives the right to a jury trial, the judge who presided at the hearing on mental illness shall not preside at the trial.[28]

         A.

         Taylor argues first that the Superior Court violated the "sole issue" requirement in § 408(a) because the court combined the plea hearing with the sentencing hearing. As part of this argument, he also claims that the court did not review "all appropriate reports" as required by the statute. The State responds that under plain error review, Taylor did not suffer prejudice from the combined hearing, and neither party contested his mental state at the time of the offense.

         Because Taylor did not raise the issue below, we review for plain error. Under plain error review "the error complained of must be so clearly prejudicial to substantial rights as to jeopardize the fairness and integrity of the trial process," and the error must be "basic, serious and fundamental . . . and clearly deprive an accused ...


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