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Blackwell v. State

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division II

April 26, 2017

JULIA BLACKWELL APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF ARKANSAS APPELLEE

         APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, FIRST DIVISION [NO. 60CR-10-2047] HONORABLE LEON JOHNSON, JUDGE

          Montgomery, Adams & Wyatt, PLC, by: Dale E. Adams, for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Brad Newman, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          RAYMOND R. ABRAMSON, Judge

         Julia Blackwell appeals the order of the Pulaski County Circuit Court denying her petition for postconviction relief pursuant to Arkansas Rule of Criminal Procedure 37.1 (2016). We affirm the circuit court's decision.

         On March 28, 2010, a car driven by Blackwell hit Ralph John Friedmann, who was walking on a sidewalk along Breckenridge Drive in Little Rock. Friedmann died from his injuries on June 8, 2010. On June 24, 2010, the State charged Blackwell with felony negligent homicide and third-degree battery for the death of Friedmann. On September 4, 2013, the State amended the charges to include a charge for manslaughter.

         Thereafter, a jury convicted Blackwell of felony negligent homicide, manslaughter, and third-degree battery. The jury sentenced Blackwell to ten years' imprisonment for felony negligent homicide and fined her $500 for third-degree battery. The jury did not sentence Blackwell on the manslaughter charge at the request of the State. On February 18, 2015, this court affirmed Blackwell's conviction. Blackwell v. State, 2015 Ark.App. 96, 455 S.W.3d 848.

         On June 5, 2015, Blackwell filed a petition in the Pulaski County Circuit Court for postconviction relief pursuant to Arkansas Rule of Criminal Procedure 37.1. She alleged that her trial counsel was ineffective for failing to (1) move to dismiss either the felony negligent-homicide charge or the manslaughter charge; (2) object to the use of nonpattern jury instructions; (3) cross-examine former police officer Natasha Sims about her termination from the Little Rock Police Department; (4) protect her right to trial by an impartial jury; (5) object to the prosecutor's improper acquisition of her sealed medical records; and (6) object or move for a mistrial after the prosecutor made personal attacks on her trial counsel during closing arguments.

         On February 19, 2016, the court held an evidentiary hearing and took the matter under advisement. Thereafter, on May 27, 2016, the court entered an order denying Blackwell's petition. On June 23, 2016, Blackwell appealed the decision. We assumed jurisdiction of this appeal pursuant to footnote 1 in Barnes v. State, 2017 Ark. 76, __S.W.3d__(per curiam).

         We do not reverse a denial of postconviction relief unless the circuit court's findings are clearly erroneous. Reed v. State, 2011 Ark. 115 (per curiam). A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the appellate court, after reviewing the entire evidence, is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed. Id.

         The benchmark question to be resolved in judging a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is whether counsel's conduct so undermined the proper functioning of the adversarial process that the trial cannot be relied on as having produced a just result. Norris v. State, 2013 Ark. 205, 427 S.W.3d 626 (per curiam). We assess the effectiveness of counsel under a two-prong standard as set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). See Lowe v. State, 2012 Ark. 185, 423 S.W.3d 6 (per curiam). Under the Strickland test, a claimant must show that counsel's performance was deficient, and the claimant must also show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense to the extent that the appellant was deprived of a fair trial. Id. A claimant must satisfy both prongs of the test, and it is unnecessary to examine both components of the inquiry if the petitioner fails to satisfy either requirement. See Pennington v. State, 2013 Ark. 39 (per curiam).

         A petitioner claiming ineffective assistance must first show that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the "counsel" guaranteed to the petitioner by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Walton v. State, 2013 Ark. 254, (per curiam). There is a strong presumption that trial counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance, and an appellant has the burden of overcoming this presumption by identifying specific acts or omissions of trial counsel that when viewed from counsel's perspective at the time of the trial could not have been the result of reasonable professional judgment. Id.

         In order to meet the second prong of the test, a claimant must show that there is a reasonable probability that the fact-finder's decision would have been different absent counsel's errors. Delamar v. State, 2011 Ark. 87 (per curiam). A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial. Id.

         On appeal, Blackwell first argues that her trial counsel was ineffective for failing to obtain a ruling from the circuit court on the use of nonpattern jury instructions at trial. She recognizes that her trial attorney made "extensive" arguments at trial concerning the instructions but asserts that she failed to obtain a ruling to preserve the issue for appeal. She claims that the verdict forms in the instructions were flawed because they did not have a place for the jury to indicate "not guilty" for felony negligent homicide and manslaughter. She asserts that the ...


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