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Media Alerts - Shotts v. Wetzel - Third Circuit
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August 5, 2013
  Shotts v. Wetzel - Third Circuit
Headline: State Court Exorbitantly Applied State Court Procedural Rule

Area of Law: Habeas Corpus; 6th Amendment; Ineffective Counsel

Issue(s) Presented: Is Petitioner's federal habeas claim barred by a state court procedural rule and, if not, is he entitled to relief on his 6th Amendment claim for ineffective assistance of counsel?

Brief Summary: Randall Shotts was charged by the district attorney for a series of crimes. He pled guilty to all charges and agreed to waive trial. The district attorney offered a reduced sentence deal, 10 to 20 years imprisonment, in light of Shotts' cooperation. Shotts rejected the deal and the judge ultimately gave Shotts 30½ to 133 years imprisonment. Shotts then alleged that his counsel was ineffective.

Extended Summary: In 1999, the Westmoreland County District Attorney charged Randall Shotts with offenses arising from a string of burglaries. While in jail, Shotts agreed to assist the District Attorney's office in a corruption investigation with the Westmoreland County Prison. After he was released, however, Shotts committed a series of different crimes and twelve additional charges were filed against him in 2000. His counsel eventually pursued a plea agreement.

The government offered a plea deal of 10 to 20 years imprisonment before the court. Shotts rejected the deal and entered a general guilty plea. Despite the fact that Shotts had cooperated with the government, the judge sentenced him to 30½ to 133 years imprisonment. At the resentencing hearing, Shotts asked for a new counsel, which was granted, but that counsel took no action on his behalf. In September 2001, another counsel was appointed to Shotts, but he also took no action. In July 2002, Shotts filed a pro se petition under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), claiming ineffective counsel. His PCRA petition was not heard until 2007, and he had multiple counsel appointed during the interim.

At the PCRA hearing, the court found that Shotts' plea was made knowingly and intelligently. The Superior Court affirmed on different grounds. The court held that Shotts waived his ineffective counsel claim because it was not timely raised. Under the Hubbard rule, the first counsel, after the allegedly ineffective one, must raise the ineffective counsel claim to preserve it. In the alternative, Shotts had to claim that each successive attorney was ineffective for failing to challenge the prior attorney's failure to raise the claim.

Shotts then pursued federal habeas corpus relief for lack of effective counsel in depravation of his Sixth Amendment rights, but the district court dismissed the petition based on the Hubbard rule. On appeal, the Third Circuit held that the Superior Court's application of the Hubbard rule was exorbitant. However, as to Shotts's ineffective counsel claim, the Court explained that the attorney's performance had to fall below an objective reasonable standard under prevailing professional norms. The Third Circuit held that failing to obtain discovery, as Shotts claimed, did not fall below the objective standard. Shotts also failed to demonstrate prejudice as a result of the alleged failure to obtain discovery. The Third Circuit also held that Shotts had enough information to make an informed decision as to the plea agreement. The district court's decision was, thus, affirmed.

To see the full opinion, click on the following link:

Panel: McKEE, Chief Judge, AMBRO, and NYGAARD, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: June 10, 2013

Date of Issued Opinion: July 31, 2013

Docket Number: No.11-3670

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Tien Cheng

Counsel: Diana Stavroulakis, Esquire, appellant; James T. Lazar, Esquire, appellees.

Author of Opinion: JUDGE AMBRO

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mary E. Levy

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 08/05/2013 12:29 PM     3rd Circuit  

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