District Court, Nephi Department The Honorable James R.
Taylor No. 111600138
E. Burdsal, Robert C. Avery, and Hutch U. Fale, Attorneys for
D. Reyes and John J. Nielsen, Attorneys for Appellee
Gregory K. Orme authored this Opinion, in which Judges Kate
Appleby and Ryan M. Harris concurred.
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.
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."
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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
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)
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.
Plea Withdrawal Hearing
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).
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.
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 ...