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Morales v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

August 6, 2019

JUAN MORALES A/K/A JUAN LUIS MORALES APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 05/02/2018

          LEE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, HON. PAUL S. FUNDERBURK JUDGE.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: JUAN MORALES (PRO SE)

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: JEFFREY A. KLINGFUSS.

          BEFORE CARLTON, P.J., LAWRENCE AND C. WILSON, JJ.

          C. WILSON, J.

         ¶1. A Lee County Grand Jury indicted Juan Morales ("Morales") on two counts of sexual battery (Counts I & III) and one count of fondling (Count II). At the time of trial in February 2007, Morales failed to appear. The circuit court found that Morales had willfully, voluntarily, and deliberately avoided trial and therefore would be tried in absentia. The jury returned a guilty verdict on all three counts. Regarding Count I, the court sentenced Morales to serve twenty-five years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) with five years suspended followed by five years of post-release supervision. Regarding Count II, the court sentenced Morales to serve fifteen years in the MDOC's custody, to be served concurrently with Count III. Regarding Count III, the court sentenced Morales to serve twenty years in the MDOC's custody, to be served consecutively to Count I.

         ¶2. In 2012, the United States Marshals Service found Morales in Mexico and returned him to the United States to be placed in MDOC's custody. In September 2017, Morales filed a petition for post-conviction collateral relief (PCR). In May 2018, the circuit court entered an order granting in part, and denying and dismissing in part, Morales's petition. The court granted relief to amend Morales's sentencing order to correctly reflect the sentences relative to the specific counts in the indictment.

         ¶3. On appeal, Morales asserts the same issues he raised before the circuit court, namely that (1) the circuit court erred by allowing him to be tried in absentia; (2) he was given an illegal sentence; and (3) he received ineffective assistance of counsel. After a thorough review of the record, we affirm.

         FACTS

         ¶4. In August 2005, a grand jury indicted Morales on two counts of sexual battery (Counts I & III) and one count of fondling (Count II). The indictment charged that, on June 20, 2005, Morales fondled and penetrated (anally and vaginally) a young girl.[1] Count I charged Morales with sexual battery upon the female victim by performing the sexual act of anal penetration via insertion of an "object and/or device in the victim's rectum." Count II charged Morales with "handl[ing], touch[ing] or rub[bing] with his hands or other parts of his body, the body of [the victim]"-specifically, the victim's vagina-for the purpose of "gratifying his lust or indulging his depraved licentious sexual desires." Count III charged Morales with sexual battery by performing the sexual act of digital penetration via insertion of his finger and/or fingers in the victim's vagina.

         ¶5. Morales pled not guilty at his arraignment, and the court released him on a $50, 000 bond. After several continuances by Morales, the court set the cause for trial on February 7, 2007. When the trial date arrived, Morales failed to appear.

         ¶6. On the morning of the scheduled trial, the court questioned Morales's attorney, Robert Laher, regarding Morales's whereabouts. Laher responded that he had spoken to Morales several times in the weeks leading up to the trial. In fact, Laher had been in contact with Morales the day before the trial on February 6, 2007. Laher was unaware if Morales had fled.[2] The court asked Laher if Morales was aware that the trial was scheduled for February 7, 2007, at 9:00 a.m. in the Lee County Justice Center located in Tupelo, Mississippi. Laher confirmed that Morales understood the correct trial date. Based on counsel's representations, the court entered a warrant for Morales's arrest.

         ¶7. The circuit court also found that Morales had willfully, voluntarily, and deliberately avoided trial and decided to proceed without Morales. Despite Morales's absence, Morales's counsel had the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and present a defense. The circuit court also instructed the jury that they were not to draw any inference from Morales's absence. On February 9, 2007, the jury returned a guilty verdict on all three counts. In Count I, the court sentenced Morales to twenty-five years with five years suspended followed by five years of post-release supervision. In Count II, the court sentenced Morales to fifteen years to be served concurrent to Count III. In Count III, the court sentenced Morales to twenty years to be served consecutively to Count I.

         ¶8. In 2012, the United States Marshals Service located Morales living in Mexico and returned him to Mississippi to be placed in the custody of the MDOC to serve his sentence. In September 2017, Morales filed a PCR petition. In May 2018, the circuit court entered an order granting in part, and denying and dismissing in part, the relief requested. Specifically, the circuit court found that (1) Morales willfully, voluntarily, and deliberately avoided trial with no prejudice resulting from his absence; (2) the sentencing order should be amended to align each count with the correct sentence; and (3) ...


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