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Bennett v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

August 6, 2019

RAFEAL BENNETT A/K/A RAFEAL DEMOND BENNETT A/K/A RAPHAEL BENNETT APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 03/26/2018

          HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT, HON. TOMIE T. GREEN JUDGE.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: CYNTHIA ANN STEWART

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

         EN BANC.

          J. WILSON, P.J.

         ¶1. Rafeal Bennett pled guilty to two counts of armed robbery. He later filed a motion for post-conviction relief (PCR). He alleges that (1) he received ineffective assistance of counsel because a lawyer who was briefly appointed to represent him long before he pled guilty had a conflict of interest and (2) the county court judge who accepted his plea and sentenced him lacked jurisdiction and authority. The circuit court denied Bennett's PCR motion. We affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. In December 2011, Bennett and two codefendants were indicted on two counts of bank robbery. Bennett was released on bond, but in June 2013 a bench warrant was issued for his arrest because he failed to maintain contact with the court. It appears that Bennett was taken into custody on October 30, 2013. On November 7, 2013, the court appointed Ray Charles Carter, an attorney with the Hinds County Public Defender (HCPD), to represent Bennett. On November 12, 2013, Bennett waived arraignment and pled not guilty.

         ¶3. On November 14, 2013, Carter moved to withdraw as counsel for Bennett. In his motion, Carter explained that HCPD already represented one of Bennett's co-defendants, Courtney Jones. Carter advised the court that there was a clear conflict of interest because Jones already had "a deal on the table to testify against" Bennett, [1] while "Bennett [was] also seeking any deals or favors he [could] get." By order signed on November 18, 2013, the court granted Carter's motion to withdraw and appointed Damon Stevenson to represent Bennett. Stevenson represented Bennett for the remainder of the case.

         ¶4. On February 26, 2015, Bennett pled guilty to two counts of armed robbery. Hinds County Court Judge Melvin Priester conducted the plea hearing and accepted Bennett's plea. On March 3, 2015, Judge Priester sentenced Bennett to concurrent terms of thirty years in the custody of the Department of Corrections, with five years suspended and twenty-five years to serve. On March 19, 2015, Bennett filed a motion requesting reconsideration of his sentence. On July 7, 2015, Judge Priester denied the motion.

         ¶5. On May 2, 2017, Bennett filed a PCR motion that asserted two claims for relief. First, Bennett alleged that his plea and conviction should be set aside because of Carter's conflict of interest. Second, Bennett alleged that Judge Priester lacked jurisdiction and authority to accept his plea and impose his sentence because there was "no specific prior order assigning . . . Bennett's case to [Judge Priester]."

         ¶6. On March 26, 2018, the circuit court denied Bennett's PCR motion. The court found that Bennett "voluntarily and knowingly pled guilty . . ., thereby waiving any of his asserted claims." The court also found that Bennett's claim of a conflict of interest was without merit because Carter and HCPD "promptly withdrew" once they recognized their conflict and private counsel was appointed to represent Bennett. Bennett appealed.

         ANALYSIS

         ¶7. In PCR cases, we review the circuit court's conclusions of law de novo. Worth v.State, 223 So.3d 844, 849 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017), cert. denied, 233 So.3d 819 (Miss. 2018). We review the ...


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