This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).






Kirk Alan Walker, petitioner,





State of Minnesota,



Filed ­­­June 20, 2006

Reversed and remanded

Dietzen, Judge


Hennepin County District Court

File No. 00087535


John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, Roy G. Spurbeck, Assistant State Public Defender, 2221 University Avenue Southeast, Suite 425, Minneapolis, MN 55414 (for appellant)


Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 1800 Bremer Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101; and


Amy Klobuchar, Hennepin County Attorney, Linda K. Jenny, Assistant County Attorney, C-2000 Government Center, 300 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55487 (for respondent)


            Considered and decided by Stoneburner, Presiding Judge; Dietzen, Judge; and Harten, Judge.*

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N




            Appellant challenges the denial of his postconviction petition, arguing that his conviction of being an ineligible person in possession of a firearm following a stipulated-facts trial should be overturned because:  (1) the trial procedure was flawed and in violation of his constitutional rights; (2) his waiver of the right to a jury trial was not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily made; and (3) the district court prejudged his case and was biased.  We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.



            In September 2000, police responded to a report of gunshots fired in a neighborhood.  Officers reported that they observed appellant Kirk Alan Walker drop a firearm into a bush while being chased by police.  Appellant was charged with one count of being an ineligible person in possession of a firearm in violation of Minn. Stat. § 624.713(1)(b) (2000).  When the jury was unable to agree on a verdict, the district court declared a mistrial. 

Subsequently, the parties scheduled the matter to be heard as a stipulated-facts trial in February 2001.  Prior to trial, counsel for the parties submitted the record to be considered by the district court, which consisted of the complaint, the police reports, and a record of appellant’s 1999 drug conviction.  At the hearing, appellant’s attorney asked appellant a series of questions in which appellant acknowledged his right to a jury trial and waived his right to a jury trial.  During this colloquy, the district court interjected: “Let’s make this clear to [appellant]…if you proceed in this fashion, I am going to find you guilty.  You are not going to be found not guilty.  I am going to find you guilty, do you understand that?”  Appellant responded, “Yes.”  Appellant agreed to proceed with the stipulated-facts trial and signed a waiver of his right to a jury trial.

Then the district court stated,

Normally what I would insist upon your doing is have you come up here and admit that you did the crime, but you don’t want to do that as I understand it and so as an alternative procedure instead of having you admit that you did the crime, which would be the normal way of proceeding, I am permitting the facts to be submitted to me through these reports, and based on these reports I will find you guilty.


The district court explained that if appellant proceeded with a stipulated-facts trial, that the court would find appellant guilty, but that it would sentence appellant to no more than one year in the work house with the remainder to be served on probation—a downward departure from the presumptive sentence of 60 months in prison.  But if appellant chose to proceed to trial, the district court would likely sentence him to the presumptive 60-month sentence.  Appellant agreed to the procedure outlined by his attorney and the district court. The district court stated that it had “reviewed [the documents] earlier” and adjudicated appellant guilty. 

At sentencing, appellant told the court that he had been “misrepresented,” pressured to waive a jury trial, and that he did not understand what “stipulated facts” meant.[1]  After several continuances, the district court sentenced appellant to 60 months in prison with execution of sentence stayed.  In April 2002, after a contested hearing, the court revoked appellant’s probation and executed the 60-month sentence.

            Appellant did not file a direct appeal, but in August 2005, he filed a postconviction petition challenging his conviction.  The district court denied appellant’s request for a hearing and the petition for postconviction relief.  This appeal follows.



            Appellant argues that the district court erred in denying his petition for postconviction relief.  First, appellant argues that the stipulated-facts trial procedure was flawed and in violation of his constitutional rights.  Appellate courts “review a postconviction court’s findings to determine whether there is sufficient evidentiary support in the record.”  Dukes v. State, 621 N.W.2d 246, 251 (Minn. 2001).  Appellate courts “afford great deference to a district court’s findings of fact and will not reverse the findings unless they are clearly erroneous.”  Id.  “The decisions of a postconviction court will not be disturbed unless the court abused its discretion.”  Id.  “The denial of a new trial by a postconviction court will not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion and review is limited to whether there is sufficient evidence to sustain the postconviction court’s findings.”  State v. Hooper, 620 N.W.2d 31, 40 (Minn. 2000).

            “By agreement of the defendant and the prosecuting attorney, a case may be submitted to and tried by the court based on stipulated facts.”  Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3.  “Upon submission of the case on stipulated facts, the court shall proceed as on any other trial to the court.”  Id.  This court must treat the construction of a rule of criminal procedure as an issue of law subject to de novo review.  State v. Nerz, 587 N.W.2d 23, 24-25 (Minn. 1998).  The rule at issue here, Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, is strictly construed.  State v. Sandmoen, 390 N.W.2d 419, 423 (Minn. App. 1986).

            Appellant contends that the proceeding in which he was convicted was not a stipulated-facts trial but rather a “slightly modified guilty plea.”  The crux of appellant’s argument is that because no specific error that arose before trial or an argument regarding the sufficiency of the evidence was raised before the district court that the proceeding was not a stipulated-facts trial. 

This court has distinguished between a Lothenbach proceeding and a stipulated-facts trial under Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3, stating that “the rule permits the defendant to raise issues on appeal as from any trial to the court, whereas the Lothenbach procedure is intended merely to preserve pretrial issues when the facts are basically undisputed.”  State v. Mahr, 701 N.W.2d 286, 291 (Minn. App. 2005), review denied (Minn. Oct. 26, 2005).  In Mahr, this court noted that an agreement to a stipulated-facts trial is not “the functional equivalent of a guilty plea.”  701 N.W.2d at 291 (quotation omitted).  Appellant may “raise issues on appeal as from any trial to the court.”  Id.  Here, appellant pleaded not guilty and the case proceeded as a stipulated-facts trial.  Therefore, we conclude that the proceeding was not a “slightly modified guilty plea.”

Appellant suggests that the case of Brookhart v. Janis, 384 U.S. 1, 86 S. Ct. 1245 (1966), supports his argument that the procedure used in this case is the functional equivalent of a guilty plea.  In Brookhart, the United States Supreme Court struck down an Ohio trial procedure in which a criminal defendant agreed, without pleading guilty, to not contest the state’s case or cross-examine its witnesses but only require that the state prove each of the essential elements of the crime.  384 U.S. at 3, 86 S. Ct. at 1246.  The Brookhart court concluded that when a defendant explicitly states that he does not plead guilty to a crime, such a statement negates his attorney’s agreement to a prima facie trial, which was the functional equivalent of a guilty plea.  Id. at 7, 86 S. Ct. at 1248. 

But unlike in Brookhart, appellant signed a waiver of his right to a jury trial, and orally waived all of the rights listed in Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3, except the  right to cross-examine witnesses against him, an omission that has not been challenged by appellant and, based on our review of the transcripts of the waiver proceeding, appears to have been inadvertent.  See State v. Halseth, 653 N.W.2d 782, 786 (Minn. App. 2002) (reversing for failure to obtain an explicit waiver of the right to testify under rule 26.01, subdivision 3, but noting that certain rights are non-fundamental and may be waived by counsel).

Here, appellant had recently completed a trial on the same charges that resulted in a hung jury and, therefore, was aware of the rights that he was waiving.  Further, appellant was represented by counsel and had the opportunity to consult with him about his trial rights prior to the waiver proceeding.  See State v. Propotnik, 299 Minn. 56, 58, 216 N.W.2d 637, 638 (1974) (holding that, although a defendant might not be questioned about a specific constitutional right, if the record demonstrates that the defendant had an opportunity to consult with counsel, the court may safely presume the defendant was aware of his rights).  Thus, Brookhart is factually distinguishable.


            Second, appellant argues that his waiver of the right to a jury trial was not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily made.  In Minnesota, the accused may waive the constitutional right to a jury trial if the waiver is “knowing, intelligent and voluntary.” State v. Ross, 472 N.W.2d 651, 653 (Minn. 1991).  And a defendant must also waive other fundamental rights before a case can be tried to the court on stipulated facts.  Halseth, 653 N.W.2d at 785 (Minn. App. 2002) (citing Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3).  Rule 26.01, subdivision 3, provides in pertinent part:

Before proceeding in this manner, the defendant shall acknowledge and waive the rights to testify at trial, to have the prosecution witnesses testify in open court in the defendant’s presence, to question those prosecution witnesses, and to require any favorable witnesses to testify for the defense in court.  The agreement and the waiver shall be in writing or orally on the record.


Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3. 

Here, our careful review of the transcript of the waiver proceeding satisfies us that appellant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right to a jury trial and his associated trial rights.  See Halseth, 653 N.W.2d at 786 (noting importance of personal, explicit waiver of fundamental rights).  We observe that the reasons we expressed in section I, supra, apply equally to support our conclusion that appellant’s waiver of his right to a jury trial was supported by the record.  Moreover, appellant was convicted in a stipulated-facts trial in 1999, and, therefore, appellant had prior experience with a stipulated-facts trial and had prior knowledge of the rights that he would give up by proceeding in that manner.[2] 


Third, appellant argues that he was deprived of his right to a stipulated-facts trial because the district court prejudged the merits of the case and was biased.  “The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to be tried by an impartial jury.”  State v. Dorsey, 701 N.W.2d 238, 249 (Minn. 2005); see also Minn. Const. art. 1, § 6.  Although the right to a trial before an impartial judge is not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, this principle has long been recognized by the United States Supreme Court.  Rose v. Clark, 478 U.S. 570, 577, 106 S. Ct. 3101, 3106 (1986); see also Greer v. State, 673 N.W.2d 151, 155 (Minn. 2004) (“[I]mpartiality is the very foundation of the American judicial system.”).  “To maintain public trust and confidence in the judiciary, judges should avoid the appearance of impropriety and should act to assure that parties have no reason to think their case is not being fairly judged.”  Pederson v. State, 649 N.W.2d 161, 164-65 (Minn. 2002).  Partiality or prejudging of the merits constitutes a structural defect that is not subject to harmless-error analysis.  Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 309-11, 111 S. Ct. 1246, 1265 (1991).

An impartial trial requires that conclusions reached by the trier-of-fact be based upon the facts in evidence, Johnson v. Hillstrom, 37 Minn. 122, 123, 33 N.W. 547, 548 (1887), and prohibits the trier-of-fact from reaching conclusions based on evidence sought or obtained beyond that adduced in court.  Spinner v. McDermott, 190 Minn. 390, 391, 251 N.W. 908, 908 (1933).  A judge’s conduct must be “fair to both sides,” and a judge should “refrain from remarks which might injure either of the parties to the litigation.”  Hansen v. St. Paul City Ry. Co., 231 Minn. 354, 360, 43 N.W.2d 260, 264 (1950).

Rule 26.01, subdivision 3, provides that “[u]pon submission of the case on stipulated facts, the court shall proceed as on any other trial to the court.”  At a minimum, this requires the court to receive the evidence submitted by the parties, allow for additional arguments of counsel, close the record, and make a general finding as required by rule 2b.

Here, the district court stated its decision before the evidence was formally received and the record was closed.  By doing so, the court failed to conduct a trial in a manner provided by the rules, and indicated partiality and prejudgment of the merits.  While we do not doubt the good faith of the district court and its candor to appellant, we conclude that appellant did not receive the stipulated-facts trial contemplated by the rules.  Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3.  Because we agree that appellant’s case was prejudged by the district court, and therefore structurally defective, we conclude that appellant was deprived of his right to a stipulated-facts trial.  Consequently, we reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

            Reversed and remanded.   

* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.

[1] Appellant cites to the transcript of the May 4, 2001 hearing, but that transcript is not a part of the district court file.  Neither party ordered the May 4, 2001 transcript, therefore, we have not considered it in our review.

[2] The postconviction court took judicial notice of the conviction and the transcript of appellant’s 1999 stipulated-facts trial.