This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
State of Minnesota,
Ramsey County District Court
File No. K5982793
John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, Bryan J. Leary, Special Assistant State Public Defender, 5115 Excelsior Boulevard, #415, St. Louis Park, MN 55416 (for appellant)
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 525 Park Street, Suite 500, St. Paul, MN 55103; and
Susan Gaertner, Ramsey County Attorney, Mark N. Lystig, Assistant County Attorney, 50 Kellogg Boulevard West, Suite 315, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Anderson, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, and Halbrooks, Judge.
In an appeal from the denial of his postconviction petition to withdraw his guilty plea, Luis Lebron contends the district court abused its discretion in finding that his plea was voluntary and not the result of ineffective assistance of counsel. The evidence supports the postconviction court’s findings, and we affirm.
Luis Lebron and others were indicted for the January 1998 kidnapping and murder of Joshua Christenson. In February 1999, Lebron pleaded guilty to one count of unintentional second-degree murder. At his plea hearing, Lebron testified that he and Alex Tovar, Lionel Becerra, Moises Kinney, and Christenson were at a party in St. Paul on the night of the murder. Lebron did not know Christenson but was present when Christenson was involuntarily brought into the kitchen, his head and hands bound with tape.
As Christenson lay on the kitchen floor, Lebron and others repeatedly assaulted Christenson and then threw him down the basement stairs. Lebron watched as Christenson was further assaulted in the basement, and then joined others in dragging him out of the basement and putting him in the back seat of Christenson’s car. Lebron stood by while Tovar and Kinney took turns stabbing Christenson. With Becerra following in a separate car, Lebron and Kinney drove Christenson to a remote location and abandoned him. Christenson died as a result of the assault and stabbing.
Lebron, Tovar, Kinney, and Becerra were each charged with one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder, and one count of kidnapping. Tovar and Kinney, in separate jury trials, were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Following Tovar’s and Kinney’s convictions and sentencing, Lebron pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree unintentional murder in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.19, subd. 2 (1) (1998), and the district court sentenced him to 210 months in prison.
Almost one year after sentencing, Lebron petitioned for postconviction relief, seeking to withdraw his guilty plea. Lebron claims that his defense attorney’s ineffective assistance coerced him into pleading guilty because he did not want to proceed to trial with an attorney who was not zealously representing him. The district court found that Lebron’s claim was not credible given the history of the case and Lebron’s statements under oath at his plea hearing that he was satisfied with his representation. The district court denied the postconviction petition, and Lebron appeals.
In reviewing a postconviction order, our function is to determine whether the record sustains the findings and whether the decision constitutes an abuse of discretion. Black v. State, 560 N.W.2d 83, 85 (Minn. 1997). We will not reverse factual findings if they are supported by sufficient evidence, but we make an independent determination of the law as it applies to the facts. See Doan v. State, 306 Minn. 89, 91-92, 234 N.W.2d 824, 826-27 (1975) (upholding fact findings supported by evidence, but independently reviewing legal determination based on found facts).
Lebron argues that the district court abused its discretion in refusing to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming it was invalid because it was the product of trial counsel’s demand that he plead guilty and his fear that counsel would not zealously represent him and would provide ineffective representation at trial.
To be valid, a guilty “plea must be accurate, voluntary, and intelligent (i.e., knowingly and understandingly made).” State v. Trott, 338 N.W.2d 248, 251 (Minn. 1983). A defendant may withdraw a guilty plea after sentence only upon a timely motion and proof to the satisfaction of the court that withdrawal is necessary to correct a manifest injustice. Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.05, subd. 1.
The purpose of accuracy in a plea is to ensure that a defendant does not plead guilty to a more serious offense than he or she could have been convicted of at trial. State v. Ecker, 524 N.W.2d 712, 716 (Minn. 1994). In general, a guilty plea is accurate if a factual basis is established prior to the plea. Id. A factual basis may be established by questioning the defendant to obtain the defendant’s account of the facts. Id.
Lebron pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree unintentional murder. The charges pending against him included the more serious crime of aiding and abetting first-degree murder, and Lebron’s statements indicate that his participation could have provided a basis for conviction on that charge. Thus, he did not plead guilty to a more serious crime than he could have been convicted of at trial. Lebron’s attorney questioned him at the plea hearing about his participation in the assault, stabbing, and kidnapping of Christenson. Lebron admitted that he participated in assaulting and kidnapping Christenson and that he watched as Tovar and Kinney stabbed Christenson with a knife. The district court also questioned Lebron and confirmed that the events in which he had been involved were accurately described. Because a factual basis was established before Lebron entered his guilty plea, the record supports the accuracy of the plea.
Lebron argues that his plea was involuntary because he was ineffectively assisted by counsel. The purpose of the voluntariness requirement is to ensure that the defendant is not pleading guilty because of improper pressures. Id. at 718. When a defendant is represented by counsel, “the voluntariness of the plea depends on whether counsel's advice ‘was within the range of competence demanded of attorneys in criminal cases.’” Id. (quoting Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 56, 106 S. Ct. 366, 369 (1985) (quotation omitted). To establish ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show that “counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” and that the defendant was prejudiced by counsel's unprofessional errors in that, but for those errors, the defendant would not have pleaded guilty. Id.
The district court noted that, at the time Lebron pleaded guilty, the court specifically asked him whether he was satisfied that his attorney had fully represented his interests. Lebron's attorney also questioned him at the plea hearing on whether he was satisfied with her representation. Lebron again responded that he was satisfied with his attorney’s legal representation.
Lebron claims that his attorney’s representation would not have been effective at trial, but his claim has not been supported by any facts, and nothing in the record suggests that he received ineffective representation or that another attorney would have proceeded differently. The district court found that Lebron’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are not credible in light of the history of the case and his repeated statements at the plea hearing that he was satisfied with his representation. Lebron has suggested nothing that has come to light since his plea hearing that would alter the responses.
Although Lebron described his plea as coerced, he has neither alleged nor presented any facts that would indicate a threat or mental coercion. See id. at 719 (guilty plea may not be produced through actual or threatened physical harm or by mental coercion “overbearing the will of the defendant”) (quoting Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 750-51, 90 S. Ct. 1463, 1470 (1970)). The record does not support Lebron’s claim that his guilty plea was involuntary.
The final plea validity requirement is that the plea must be intelligent. A plea is intelligent if, at the time of pleading, a defendant understood the “nature and seriousness of the offense charged.” Perkins v. State, 559 N.W.2d 678, 689 (Minn. 1997). Lebron was faced with a choice of pleading guilty to second-degree murder or going to trial on the charges of second-degree murder, kidnapping, and first-degree murder that carries a maximum sentence of 40 years. Minn. Stat. § 609.19, subd. 1 (2000). The district court found that at the time Lebron entered his plea, Tovar’s and Kinney’s trials had been concluded and the testimony in those trials established that the case against Lebron was “anything but weak.” The record, including Lebron’s responses at his plea hearing, demonstrate that he was aware of the nature and seriousness of the crime and the maximum sentence that could be imposed and that his plea was intelligently entered.
The record fully supports the district court’s finding that Lebron received effective assistance of counsel and further supports a conclusion that Lebron’s plea was valid because it was accurate, voluntary, and intelligent. The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Lebron's post-conviction petition.