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Smith v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

August 3, 2017



          Olajuwon Smith, pro se appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Jacob H. Jones, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          ROBIN F. WYNNE, Associate Justice

         In November 2013, judgment was entered reflecting that appellant Olajuwon Smith had entered a plea of guilty to multiple felony offenses.[1] He was sentenced to an aggregate term of 480 months' imprisonment. Imposition of an additional 120 months' imprisonment was suspended. On January 21, 2014, Smith filed in the trial court a pro se petition for postconviction relief pursuant to Arkansas Rule of Criminal Procedure 37.1 (2013) that was dismissed. On January 31, 2014, he filed a second petition under the Rule that was denied on February 14, 2014. Smith appealed to this court from the February 14, 2014 order, and we affirmed. Smith v. State, 2015 Ark. 23, 454 S.W.3d 219 (per curiam).

         On February 27, 2015, Smith filed in the trial court a pro se petition for writ of error coram nobis. It does not appear that the February 27, 2015 coram nobis petition was acted on by the court, but on January 6, 2016, he filed a second such petition in which he repeated the claims for the writ that were raised in the first petition. The second petition was denied on October 21, 2016, and Smith brings this appeal.

         The standard of review of an order entered by the trial court on a petition for writ of error coram nobis is whether the trial court abused its discretion in granting or denying the writ. Newman v. State, 2014 Ark. 7. An abuse of discretion occurs when the court acts arbitrarily or groundlessly. Nelson v. State, 2014 Ark. 91, 431 S.W.3d 852. The trial court's findings of fact, on which it bases its decision to grant or deny the petition for writ of error coram nobis, will not be reversed on appeal unless they are clearly erroneous or clearly against the preponderance of the evidence. Newman, 2014 Ark. 7. There is no abuse of discretion in the denial of error coram nobis relief when the claims in the petition were groundless. Nelson, 2014 Ark. 91, 431 S.W.3d 852.

         A writ of error coram nobis is an extraordinarily rare remedy. State v. Larimore, 341 Ark. 397, 17 S.W.3d 87 (2000). The function of the writ is to secure relief from a judgment rendered while there existed some fact that would have prevented its rendition if it had been known to the trial court and which, through no negligence or fault of the defendant, was not brought forward before rendition of the judgment. Newman v. State, 2009 Ark. 539, 354 S.W.3d 61. The petitioner has the burden of demonstrating a fundamental error of fact extrinsic to the record. Roberts v. State, 2013 Ark. 56, 425 S.W.3d 771.

         The writ is allowed only under compelling circumstances to achieve justice and to address errors of the most fundamental nature. Id. A writ of error coram nobis is available to address certain errors that are found in one of four categories: (1) insanity at the time of trial, (2) a coerced guilty plea, (3) material evidence withheld by the prosecutor, or (4) a third-party confession to the crime during the time between conviction and appeal. Howard v. State, 2012 Ark. 177, 403 S.W.3d 38. Error coram nobis proceedings are attended by a strong presumption that the judgment of conviction is valid. Nelson, 2014 Ark. 91, at 3, 431 S.W.3d 852, 854.

         Smith raised the following grounds for issuance of the writ: his guilty plea was obtained by coercion and intimidation; and the prosecution violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). A Brady violation is established when material evidence favorable to the defense is wrongfully withheld by the State. Scott v. State, 2017 Ark. 199.

         We first note that Smith's brief in this appeal contains claims for relief that were not included in his coram nobis petition and has added substantiation to bolster the claims that were raised below. We do not address new arguments raised for the first time on appeal or consider factual substantiation added to bolster the allegations made below. See Stover v. State, 2017 Ark. 66, 511 S.W.3d 333. When reviewing the trial court's ruling on a coram nobis petition on appeal, the appellant is limited to the scope and nature of the arguments that he or she made below that were considered by the trial court in rendering its ruling. See id. For that reason, we limit our consideration in this appeal to those claims, and any factual support for those claims, that were contained in the petition filed by Smith in the trial court on January 6, 2016.

         With respect to Smith's allegation that he was coerced into entering his plea of guilty, to prevail on a claim that a writ of error coram nobis is warranted because a plea was coerced, the petitioner bears the burden of establishing that the plea was the result of fear, duress, or threats of mob violence as previously recognized by this court as grounds for a finding of coercion. Green v. State, 2016 Ark. 386, 502 S.W.3d 524. Smith based his claim of coercion on the fact that he was informed at a pretrial hearing that he would be required to wear a "kidney belt" under his clothing at trial and that the kidney belt could deliver a substantial electric shock if activated.[2]

         Contained in the record in this appeal is the transcript of a pretrial hearing in which the court directed that Smith be permitted to change into civilian clothes before being transported to the courthouse for trial, that he was not to be shackled, and that he wear the kidney belt under his clothing because he had a history of violence and the guards transporting him should be protected. Smith argued in his coram nobis petition that the court's graphic description to him of the effects of being shocked intimidated him and frightened him into entering a plea of guilty. He further alleged in his petition, as he does in this appeal, that the trial court specifically threatened to activate the kidney belt if Smith raised certain issues at trial.

         The trial court did not err in finding that Smith had not demonstrated that a writ of error coram nobis should be issued. Smith's allegations that his plea was coerced did not rise to the level of coercion to warrant issuance of the writ, which we have held is a compulsion of a free agent by physical, moral, or economic force or threat of physical force. See White v. State, 2015 Ark. 151, at 5, 460 S.W.3d 285, 288. Smith presented no facts to establish that he had been threatened that the belt would be activated if he chose to go to trial and ...

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