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State v. Wright

Court of Appeals of Utah

April 25, 2019

State of Utah, Appellee,
v.
Blake Rees Wright, Appellant.

          Fourth District Court, Nephi Department The Honorable James R. Taylor No. 111600138

          Nathan E. Burdsal, Robert C. Avery, and Hutch U. Fale, Attorneys for Appellant

          Sean D. Reyes and John J. Nielsen, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge Gregory K. Orme authored this Opinion, in which Judges Kate Appleby and Ryan M. Harris concurred.

          ORME, JUDGE

         ¶1 Defendant Blake Rees Wright challenges his guilty plea to aggravated kidnapping, a first-degree felony; attempted murder and aggravated elder abuse, both second-degree felonies; and obstruction of justice, witness retaliation, possession of ammunition in a correctional facility, unlawful discharge of a firearm, and possession of a firearm by a restricted person, all third-degree felonies. Defendant argues, among other things, that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance. Apart from his aggravated kidnapping conviction, which we vacate and in connection with which we remand for further proceedings, we affirm his convictions and deny his request to withdraw his guilty pleas.

         BACKGROUND

         The Assault

         ¶2 Defendant, who lived with his mother (Mother), instigated an argument with her about whether she had been interfering with his prescription medications and telling other people that he, a convicted felon, had access to a gun. Defendant recorded the altercation with a video camera, apparently for the purpose of making a video record of her "lies."

         ¶3 A few minutes into the argument, Mother stood up, intending to leave, but Defendant pushed her back into her chair. Mother and Defendant continued to argue, and Defendant told Mother that he "could fuckin' put a bullet in [her] fuckin' head and not even think twice about it." Mother admitted that she had told someone that he had a gun. She then shoved Defendant, knocking the video camera out of his hands. Although Defendant and Mother are no longer visible on the recording, a subsequent assault can be heard in the background.

         ¶4 Mother testified that Defendant hit her "hard" with "both hands" for what "felt like forever." He also put her in a headlock and squeezed her until it "felt like something was breaking." After releasing Mother, Defendant took a piece of glass from a coffee table that had been broken during the attack and brandished it over Mother, making her think it was "all over." In the video recording, Defendant is heard saying, "You, fuckin', you oughta get your fuckin' hands off you old bitch or I'll fuckin' kill you, to death. I'll choke you to death." As Mother pleads with Defendant to stop, he tells her he is going to "beat [her] to death," "kill [her]," and that the beating was "just a taste [of] what [she was] going to get." Defendant then stops the recording.

         ¶5 For a few hours, Defendant left Mother alone and the two were not together. But once again Defendant became upset with Mother for interfering with his prescription medications. Defendant then got a gun, pointed it at her head and ordered her to call 911. He told her he was "not kidding around" and he "could shoot [her] leg," and then he shot two bullets into the floor. Subsequently, Defendant grabbed Mother by the legs and pulled her out of the chair. She fell to the floor and "could hear" her ribs cracking. Mother eventually got back on the chair and stayed there "because it was so painful that [she] couldn't do anything else."

         ¶6 Unable to tolerate the pain anymore, Mother asked Defendant to open the garage door so that she could go to the hospital. She asked him three times to open the garage door before he complied with her request. Before Mother left, Defendant asked her what she was going to say at the hospital, and she told him that she would tell the hospital staff she fell off the cement steps.

         ¶7 Defendant followed Mother to the hospital. Approaching her in the emergency room area, he lifted up his coat "to show [her] that he had [a] gun." When the emergency room doctor (First Doctor) examined Mother, she told him that she had fallen off the front porch steps. First Doctor recommended that Mother stay the night, but Mother was worried that Defendant would hurt other people, so she returned home.

         ¶8 The next day, when her daughter picked her up, Mother told her that Defendant had attacked and "pistol whipped" her. After a few days at her daughter's home, Mother was still in a lot of pain and returned to the hospital. A doctor (Second Doctor) examined her and determined that she had a subdural hematoma and edema-bleeding between the brain and the skull and swelling of the brain. Another doctor confirmed the diagnosis with an MRI that showed a subdural hematoma and "[shear] injury" to Mother's brain. Mother also had a bruised spleen and four broken ribs.

         ¶9 Officers arrested Defendant. Defendant, smiling at an officer said, "You guys didn't even find the gun, did you?" But officers found a fully loaded .22 caliber gun hidden at the house, and Defendant unsuccessfully tried to dispose of .22 caliber ammunition at the jail. Defendant's sister later found the video recording and turned it over to the police. Defendant was charged as noted above, see supra ¶ 1, and the case proceeded to trial.

         The Trial

         ¶10 On the first day of trial, Defendant requested a continuance, seeking new counsel. The district court, unaware of any conflict between Defendant and his counsel (Trial Counsel), asked Trial Counsel about the conflict. Trial Counsel replied that it would be better for "additional counsel [to] come in the case," based on the "complexity of the case" and given the number of counts and his "relationship with [Defendant]." Trial Counsel indicated that Defendant "want[ed him] to continue to work on the case" and appreciated counsel's efforts, but Defendant wanted "an attorney of his own that he's selected to join in and be lead counsel." The State pointed out that Trial Counsel was a "very experienced attorney" who had "tried a number of very difficult cases" that were "much more complicated and much more serious than" Defendant's case, and he had the necessary skill and experience to try the case on his own. The court denied the continuance request, stating that Defendant should have made the request "months ago" instead of on the first day of trial. It also denied Trial Counsel's request for additional counsel.

         ¶11 Three days into the trial, and after having viewed the video recording made by Defendant, the jury heard detailed testimony from Mother about the assault. After Mother's testimony, Trial Counsel requested additional time during the break. After returning from this break, the parties announced that Defendant would plead guilty as charged, but the State would amend the aggravated kidnapping count by removing the serious bodily injury allegation which would reduce the maximum sentence from life without parole to 15 years to life. See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-302(3)(a)-(b) (LexisNexis 2017).

         ¶12 Defendant signed a plea statement, listing the rights that he was waiving, including his right to a trial at which the State would have "the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, what are called 'elements' of the offense (or offenses) charged." The district court conducted a plea colloquy to ensure that Defendant understood his guilty plea. During the colloquy, Defendant acknowledged that he had read and understood the plea agreement and the rights he was waiving, had no questions about it and required no further explanation of it, and was "acting freely and voluntarily" in entering his guilty plea.

         The Plea Withdrawal Hearing

         ¶13 A few days later, Defendant wrote a letter to the district court seeking to withdraw his guilty plea. Although the pro se motion was filed before sentencing, the district court failed to address it and proceeded with sentencing. Defendant appealed and this court summarily reversed Defendant's sentence and remanded the matter to the district court to address the motion. See id. § 77-13-6(2)(b).

         ¶14 On remand, Defendant was appointed new counsel and granted leave to amend his motion to withdraw his guilty plea. In his amended motion, Defendant argued that his plea was not made knowingly or voluntarily and that Trial Counsel provided ineffective assistance. In an evidentiary hearing on these issues, Defendant testified that he pled guilty because Trial Counsel was unprepared for trial and he felt forced to take the plea deal. But Trial Counsel contradicted this testimony, stating that he had met with Defendant multiple times, interviewed the witnesses, visited the crime scene, and reviewed the evidence. Trial Counsel further testified that, after Mother testified at trial, Defendant did not want her to be cross-examined because "she'd been through enough" and Defendant had seen "the entire jury was in tears." Defendant also told Trial Counsel that he was "going to be convicted," a conclusion with which Trial Counsel apparently did not disagree. Trial Counsel then asked Defendant if he wanted to seek a plea deal, and Defendant told him that he did.

         ¶15 The district court determined that Trial Counsel's testimony was more consistent with the record and that Defendant's testimony was self-serving and "was contradicted by the record." Based on that determination, the court found that Defendant was the one who sought a plea agreement, not Trial Counsel, and that he was not "coerced or compelled to accept a plea bargain." It also concluded that the record established that Defendant entered his plea knowingly and ...


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