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GA Supreme Court Vacates Plea to Enticement and Child Pornography Charges

June 10, 2015

In Smith v. Magnuson, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the habeas court’s decision to vacate the defendant’s guilty plea to enticing a child for indecent purposes, possession of child pornography and attempted kidnapping.

The Court held that because of the defendant’s mental illness, he was unable to knowingly and intelligently enter guilty pleas in the dynamics of a group plea hearing. Thus, his guilty pleas were invalid.

At the defendant’s guilty plea hearing, the court asked a group of defendants if any of them had ever been a patient in a mental health facility or under the care of a psychiatrist. Magnuson answered incorrectly that he had not. Plea counsel told the court that the defendant had been institutionalized for mental health problems, but counsel was not sure whether he had been under the care of a psychiatrist. Counsel told the judge that the defendant had been found competent to stand trial, and the judge remarked that he “appears as such.” The court did not ask any other questions about the current state or history of the defendant’s mental health before accepting his guilty plea. The defendant was sentenced to a total of 40 years in prison followed by 25 years on probation.

The defendant filed a petition for habeas corpus relief asserting that plea counsel failed to adequately investigate his mental illness or discover and present evidence supporting mental health defenses to the trial court at the time of the defendant’s plea. At an evidentiary hearing, the defendant introduced evidence that he had a long history of mental health problems that required the care of psychiatrists, prescription medications, and participation in group and individual therapy. On several occasions, the defendant’s mental health problems required hospitalization.

A therapist who treated the defendant testified that when she met him, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and needed assistance with daily living skills. She also testified that she visited the defendant after he was arrested, and that he did not understand the severity of the charges. He believed he would “spend six or eight weeks in jail and then go home.”

Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the habeas court found that the defendant’s “mental health condition prevented him from understanding the questions of the court and answering them truthfully due to the circumstances of the group plea.” Thus, the court granted the defendant’s habeas petition.

The Georgia Supreme Court found that there was evidence in the record to support the habeas court’s finding that the defendant’s mental condition affected his ability to understand the guilty plea colloquy. The Court found that the transcript from the plea hearing highlighted the fact that plea counsel was unfamiliar with the details of the defendant’s mental health history, and failed to disclose the extent of that history to the trial court. Nevertheless, the Court noted that because it found that the guilty plea was invalid, there was no need to address the defendant’s claims that plea counsel was ineffective.

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