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Easterling v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

March 26, 2019

MARION CHUCK EASTERLING A/K/A CHUCK EASTERLING APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/06/2018

          GREENE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT TRIAL JUDGE: HON. KATHY KING JACKSON

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: ELIZABETH L. PORTER

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BILLY L. GORE

          BEFORE CARLTON, P.J., TINDELL AND McDONALD, JJ.

          McDONALD, J.

         ¶1. On August 24, 2015, Marion Chuck Easterling knowingly and voluntarily entered a negotiated plea of guilty to aggravated assault of his sister, Kimberly Nicholson. He was sentenced on November 16, 2015, to twenty years in the state penitentiary, with seven years to be served, along with a $1, 000 fine, court costs, and $5, 485.68 in restitution. On August 2, 2017, Easterling filed a motion for post-conviction relief (PCR). After an evidentiary hearing on September 28, 2017, the circuit court denied his motion; however, the Order to that effect was not filed until February 6, 2018. On February 16, 2018, Easterling timely filed his appeal. Finding no error, we affirm the circuit court's decision.

         FACTS

         ¶2. At the time of his plea, Marion Chuck Easterling was fifty-two years old. He has been totally deaf since birth and has only a ninth-grade education. He communicates by signing. He was married, had an adult child, and worked in construction. He had no prior criminal record.

         ¶3. In May 2012, Easterling had an argument with his sister, Kimberly Nicholson, who is also deaf. Easterling said he got in his car and accidentally put it in drive instead of reverse and hit his sister pinning her to a wall. According to the State, however, Easterling's brother-in-law had to force Easterling out of the vehicle, so it could be backed up and Easterling's sister released. Kimberly's pelvis was crushed, and Easterling was charged with aggravated assault pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated Section 97-3-7(2) (Rev. 2014).[1]

         ¶4. Prior to entering his guilty plea on August 24, 2015, Easterling met privately with his attorney and a nationally certified interpreter, Margo Buisson. The interpreter assisted the communications between them and helped explain legal terms and the nature of the proceeding. During the proceeding, the interpreter was present at all times translating the questions into sign for Easterling and translating Easterling's signs for everyone else. Easterling, who can read and write, indicated that he had read the charges against him. The court thoroughly questioned Easterling as to his understanding of the charges to which Easterling replied, "I am guilty. I am sorry that it happened." The court went through each of the rights Easterling was relinquishing by pleading guilty, to which Easterling replied he knew these rights and was voluntarily giving them up. Easterling also said he was satisfied with the services of his attorney. The court accepted Easterling's plea as being knowingly and voluntarily made and set a date for sentencing.

         ¶5. On November 16, 2015, the certified interpreter was again present at the sentencing hearing. The court sentenced Easterling to twenty years in the state penitentiary, with seven years to be served, along with a $1, 000 fine, court costs, and $5, 485.68 in restitution. At that hearing, Easterling asked several clarifying questions through his interpreter.

         ¶6. Easterling retained new counsel, who on August 2, 2017 filed a "Motion to Vacate the Sentence, Set Aside the Conviction and/or Withdraw his Guilty Plea." Pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 99-39-9 (3) (Rev. 2015), Easterling verified the motion. In the motion it was claimed that Easterling was not afforded a translator until the hearing on the guilty pleas and that due to his disability and limited education, Easterling did not understand the proceedings.[2] His attorney also claimed that Easterling's counsel at the time of the plea and sentencing was ineffective. The only attachment to the motion was Easterling's affidavit, in which he stated that he was currently of sound mind, that he had attended the Mississippi School for the Deaf but dropped out after the ninth grade, that he was not afforded an attorney at any stage of his case until he went to court, and that he did not understand the charges against him or the consequences of the guilty plea. No other affidavits were attached or presented.

         ¶7. The court held an evidentiary hearing on Easterling's motion on September 28, 2017. The State called the translator, Margo Buisson, who with national certification and over thirty-five years of experience, was accepted by the defense as an expert. She testified:

[H]ad there been any time at which I did not feel as though Mr. Easterling understood, I would have said-I would have stopped the situation immediately and said that the interpreter needs a moment to fully explain the situation, or I would have asked for clarification for the interpreter to be able to do the full interpretation and make sure that communication was happening.

         Easterling called no witnesses and presented no other testimony or documents to support the allegations in his motion. At the end of the hearing, the trial court stated that it had heard no testimony or evidence that would make it believe that Easterling did not fully understand what was going on during the prior proceedings. The court denied the motion. The Order to that effect was not filed until February 6, 2018. On February 16, 2018, Easterling timely filed his appeal.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶8. A ruling court's decision to deny post-conviction relief will not be disturbed unless that court's factual findings are clearly erroneous. However, the review for questions of law raised is de novo. Jackson v. State, 986 So.2d 326, 327-28 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007); Hobson v. State, 910 So.2d 139, 1140 (¶4) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005).

         DISCUSSION

         ¶9. On appeal, Easterling raises three issues: whether he was denied due process by the State's failure to provide an interpreter during his arrest, interrogation, and pre-trial matters; whether, based on his hearing impairment and "mental deficiencies," Easterling lacked the capacity to enter a plea knowingly and voluntarily; and whether Easterling's counsel was ineffective.

         I. Whether Easterling was denied due process by the State's failure to provide an interpreter during arrest, interrogation, and pre-trial matters.

         ¶10. Easterling claims that pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated Section 13-1-303, he was entitled to an interpreter from the time he became involved with law enforcement through sentencing. This Court acknowledges the requirements of the statute but sees no evidence in the record concerning the pre-court events (arrest, detention, or interrogation) or the denial of an interpreter at those times, other than allegations made in the motion that Easterling verified to meet statutory requirements. In his supporting affidavit, Easterling gives no facts to support this allegation. At the plea hearing, the state offered no interrogation statements or confessions by Easterling that would make this an issue. Moreover, in his affidavit accompanying the Motion, Easterling said he was not afforded the assistance of an attorney, not an interpreter, in the pre-trial stages of his case. At the hearing, Easterling offered no testimony or other proof of this claim.

         ¶11. Easterling cites as instructive the case of Shook v. State, 552 So.2d 841 (Miss. 1989), where a deaf defendant raised claims similar to Easterling's. The Shook court pointed out that "in a case of this character, one where the defendant is suffering from the serious handicap of deafness, the court should exercise great care to see to it that the defendant is accorded his constitutional rights." Id. at 845. Defendant Shook claimed that the court erred when he was forced to trial when he was "physically incompetent and may have been mentally incompetent." The court rejected Shook's argument, saying it was totally refuted by the facts, namely that though deaf, Shook could read lips and was a college student; that witnesses stated that they could communicate with him; and that the court made every effort to make sure Shook had a fair trial. Here Easterling claims that because he only had a ninth grade education, under the principles of Shook, he was denied due process. But the facts show he was not illiterate. He could read and write and stated at the plea hearing that he read and understood the plea petition. He was of sound mind, and he was able to work and maintain a family. He provided no proof of being mentally incompetent or mentally deficient. The court addressed his one disability-deafness-by providing a certified interpreter with whom Easterling met alone with his attorney, and who then assisted in the court proceedings. If he had been denied a translator during his arrest or interrogation, he did not raise this at his plea hearing. There being no evidence that he was denied an interpreter any earlier, other than his verified motion which was not even supported by his own affidavit, we find no denial of Easterling's due process rights. In addition, having knowingly and voluntarily entered a guilty plea, Easterling waived this and any defense that he may have had to the charge. Belton v. State, 138 So.3d 237, 239 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014).

         II. Whether based on his hearing impairment and mental deficiencies, Easterling lacked the capacity to enter a plea knowingly and voluntarily.

         A. Defendant&# ...


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