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Sandrelli v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

April 27, 2017



          David L. Dunagin, for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Valerie Glover Fortner, for appellee.

          RHONDA K. WOOD, Associate Justice

         This appeal returns to us after we remanded for the circuit court to hold a hearing on two of Robert Sandrelli's claims for ineffective assistance of counsel. After holding the hearing, the court denied relief on both grounds. We affirm the circuit court's judgment.

         Robert Sandrelli was charged with four counts of rape. The victim was Sandrelli's fourteen-year-old son. A jury trial was held in August 2013. This first trial resulted in a hung jury, and the circuit court declared a mistrial. A second trial was held a month later, which resulted in Sandrelli being convicted on all four counts. Our court of appeals affirmed the conviction in Sandrelli v. State, 2015 Ark.App. 127.

         Following direct review, Sandrelli filed a petition for postconviction relief under Arkansas Rule of Criminal Procedure 37.1. Sandrelli propounded three claims of ineffective assistance of counsel that he alleged occurred at his second trial: (1) defense counsel was under emotional and professional stress; (2) defense counsel failed to call any character witnesses; and (3) defense counsel unilaterally decided that Sandrelli would not testify. The circuit court denied Sandrelli's petition without holding a hearing. Sandrclli appealed to this court, arguing that he was entitled to a hearing on his claims.

         We affirmed in part and reversed and remanded in part. See Sandreili v. State, 2016 Ark. 103, 485 S.W.3d 692. We held that Sandrelli's first claim was conciusory; therefore, he was not entitled to a hearing on it. But we remanded for a hearing on the last two claims. Because the circuit court apparently struggled to understand why this court was remanding the matter and did not understand the concept of a "control-case, " we once again explain. This is similar to control-groups in scientific experiments. Here, two different trials took place, with two different outcomes. The first trial resulted in a hung jury and the second trial resulted in a conviction. Sandrelli's petition for postconviction relief claimed that the only fact distinguishing the two trials was the lack of defense witnesses at the second trial. The circuit court, based on the record alone, found that counsel and Sandrclli "must have agreed no witnesses would be called." This was speculative. We held that the circuit court could not conclusively determine, without sonic evidence, that counsel's decisions were supported by reasonable professional judgment. The circuit court should not guess the reasons behind the trial counsel's decisions; rather, the court should establish those reasons based on evidence presented at a hearing.

         On remand, the circuit court held a hearing on these two claims. Sandrclli testified at the hearing. He stated that he testified in the first trial and intended to testify again at the second trial. Yet he claimed that his attorney, Ray Spruell, never asked him to make a decision whether to testify. Rather, Spruell informed him, after the first day of trial, that he would not be testifying. Sandrelli also stated that Spruell never discussed with hirn his decision to call no character witnesses at the second trial.

         Spruell testified as well. He stated that while the first trial ended in a hung jury, the vote was 11-1 in favor of conviction. Spruell thought the character witnesses who testified in the first trial played an insignificant role in the jury's decision: "The bottom line is I never felt that character witnesses were the key to why we got a hung jury the first time around." For instance, Spruell noted that one witness, Betty Turner, was nervous on the stand and agreed on cross examination that she "assumed that if something was going on [the victim] would keep quiet and wouldn't say anything about it." Spruell also noted that the witnesses appeared to be surprised when they were confronted with Sandrclli's earlier conviction for domestic battery against his son.

         Spruell testified that the best character witness, Woodrow Star, told him between the first and second trials that he would no longer be a good character witness for Sandrelli. According to Spruell, Star told him that Sandrelli had displayed behavior that would cause Star to change his testimony about Sandrclli's truthfulness. Star testified as well, but he denied that this interaction ever took place.

         Finally, Spruell stated that he told Sandrelli that the decision whether to testify rested with Sandrelli. Spruell asserted that he recommended that Sandrelli not testify: "I knew that Mr. Sandrelli didn't like to testify in the first [trial]. So, I explained to him that it was going to be rough on him the second time around and I didn't think he would look good up there." Spruell stated that Sandrelli agreed that he should not testify. One particular concern Spruell had was Sandrelli's testimony during the first trial. When questioned about his domestic-battery charge against his son, Sandrelli initially maintained that it was a football injury. Yet when pressed by the prosecution, Sandrclli admitted that the he had thrown his son across the room. This spontaneous admission contradicted a video-recorded interview that was admitted during the second trial, wherein Sandrclli "adamantly" denied to the police that he had ever thrown his son. Spruell was concerned how the inconsistencies would affect Sandrclli on cross.

         The circuit court issued a written order denying Sandrclli's petition. The court found that counsel's decision to call no witnesses in the second trial "was a sound professional judgment by an experienced advocate and that it was reasonable." The court further found that "not only was counsel's advice [whether to testify] a matter of professional judgment of a very experienced attorney, but the decision was made by the Defendant." Finally, the court noted that Sandrelli's testimony was "self-serving, inconsistent, and totally unreasonable and not believable."

         We do not reverse the grant, or denial of postconviction relief unless the circuit court's findings are clearly erroneous. Lemaster v. State,2015 Ark. 167, 459 S.W.3d 802. A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the appellate court, after reviewing the entire evidence, ...

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