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Conley v. Kelley

Supreme Court of Arkansas

January 31, 2019

VERNELL CONLEY APPELLANT
v.
WENDY KELLEY APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE LINCOLN COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. CV-18-15] HONORABLE JODI RAINES DENNIS, JUDGE

          J. Thomas Sullivan, for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Vada Berger, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          COURTNEY HUDSON GOODSON, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE

         Appellant Vernell Conley appeals the circuit court's denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. For reversal, Conley argues that (1) the circuit court erred in holding that his claims were not appropriate for resolution in the habeas process; (2) the extant judgment and commitment order under which he is committed is void or defective as a result of this court's decision in Conley v. State, 2014 Ark. 172, 433 S.W.3d 234, which vacated two of the three sentences that he challenged; (3) his confinement under the existing judgment and commitment order is unlawful because his sentence on the remaining count was determined by a jury that also considered evidence deemed insufficient to support his conviction on the two dismissed counts; and (4) his confinement on the remaining count violates his due-process rights because, in sentencing him, the jury considered evidence deemed insufficient to support his conviction on the two dismissed counts. We affirm.

         I. Background

         By amended felony information, the prosecuting attorney in Washington County charged Conley with delivery of a controlled substance (crack cocaine); possession of a controlled substance (marijuana) with intent to deliver; and possession of drug paraphernalia (digital scales). The information also alleged that Conley was a habitual offender with more than four previous felony convictions. Conley stood trial before a jury on August 26, 2010. The State's evidence disclosed that Conley delivered 0.5813 grams of crack cocaine to undercover police officers. According to the testimony, the delivery occurred on the evening of September 15, 2009, at a park in Fayetteville. However, the officers did not arrest Conley until November 6, 2009. On that date, the officers also executed a search warrant at Conley's home, where they discovered 32.5 grams of marijuana in a plastic bag and a set of digital scales. The jury found Conley guilty of delivery of crack cocaine and possession of the digital scales as drug paraphernalia. The jury acquitted Conley of possession of marijuana with intent to deliver and instead found him guilty of the lesser-included offense of possession of marijuana. As a habitual offender, Conley received sentences of sixty years for delivery of a controlled substance, six years for possession of a controlled substance, and thirty years for possession of drug paraphernalia.[1] In affirming, the Arkansas Court of Appeals refused to reach the merits of Conley's sufficiency-of-the-evidence arguments after it determined that Conley's directed-verdict motions were not specific enough to preserve the issues raised on appeal. Conley v. State, 2011 Ark.App. 597, 385 S.W.3d 875.

         Thereafter, Conley filed a petition for postconviction relief pursuant to Rule 37.1. The circuit court later granted Conley leave to file an amended petition, and in that amended petition, he alleged that he was denied effective assistance of counsel because his trial counsel (1) failed to present a witness after informing the jury in his opening statement that he would produce a witness who would testify that the marijuana and the paraphernalia did not belong to Conley, (2) did not make adequate motions for directed verdict, and (3) failed to move for severance of the possession and delivery offenses. The circuit court denied the petition, and Conley appealed. On appeal, we affirmed on Conley's first point when we could not conclude that he suffered any prejudice from counsel's remark in opening statement. Conley v. State, 2014 Ark. 172, 433 S.W.3d 244. However, we reversed on Conley's second argument because the evidence was not sufficient to support Conley's conviction of the possession charges and trial counsel's failure to make a proper directed-verdict motion was both deficient and prejudicial. Id. Because Conley's severance argument was directed solely to the possession offenses, and we determined that those charges were to be dismissed, we did not address it. We therefore "[a]ffirmed in part; reversed and remanded in part with directions to dismiss the charges of possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia." Id. at 13, 433 S.W.3d at 243. Conley did not petition for rehearing, and our mandate issued on May 6, 2014. Our mandate reads in its entirety:

THIS POSTCONVICTION CRIMINAL APPEAL WAS SUBMITTED TO THE ARKANSAS SUPREME COURT ON THE RECORD OF THE WASHINGTON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT AND BRIEFS OF THE RESPECTIVE PARTIES. AFTER DUE CONSIDERATION, IT IS THE DECISION OF THE COURT THAT THE JUDGMENT OF THE CIRCUIT COURT IS AFFIRMED IN PART; REVERSED AND REMANDED IN PART WITH DIRECTIONS FOR THE REASONS SET OUT IN THE ATTACHED OPINION.

         Conley filed a federal habeas petition on March 26, 2015. On Conley's motion, the federal proceedings were held in abeyance to allow him to exhaust his state remedies. Pursuant to our opinion in Conley's Rule 37 appeal, the Washington County Circuit Court entered a formal order on August 27, 2015, dismissing Conley's possession convictions. However, the circuit court did not conduct a resentencing hearing on the delivery charge or enter a new judgment and commitment order reflecting the dismissal of the two possession convictions. On April 7, 2017, Conley filed a motion to recall the mandate in his Rule 37 appeal and for leave to file an out-of-time petition for rehearing. We unanimously denied that motion on April 27, 2017. Conley remains imprisoned on his 720-month delivery sentence.

         II. State Habeas Petition

         Conley filed his petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Lincoln County Circuit Court on January 26, 2018.[2] Therein, Conley argued that (1) the existing judgment and commitment order under which he is committed is void or defective as a result of our decision in his Rule 37 appeal, which vacated two of the three sentences that he challenged; (2) his confinement under the judgment and commitment order is unlawful because his sentence on the remaining count was determined by a jury that also considered evidence deemed insufficient to support his conviction on the two dismissed counts; and (3) his confinement on the remaining count violates his due-process rights. Conley sought a new sentencing hearing limited to evidence supporting his delivery conviction and the entry of a new judgment reflecting the jury's sentence imposed on that count. The circuit court dismissed Conley's petition.

         A. Standard of Review

         A writ of habeas corpus is proper when a judgment of conviction is invalid on its face or when a circuit court lacks jurisdiction over the cause. Philyaw v. Kelley, 2015 Ark. 465, 477 S.W.3d 503. Under our statute, a petitioner who does not allege his or her actual innocence must plead either the facial invalidity of the judgment or the lack of jurisdiction by the circuit court and make a showing by affidavit or other evidence of probable cause to believe that the petitioner is being illegally detained. Id.; Ark. Code Ann. § 16-112-103(a)(1) (Repl. 2016). Unless the petitioner can show that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction or that the judgment is facially invalid, there is no basis for a finding that a writ of habeas corpus should issue. Williams v. Kelley, 2017 Ark. 200, 521 S.W.3d 104.

         A circuit court's decision on a petition for a writ of habeas corpus will be upheld unless it is clearly erroneous. Johnson v. State, 2018 Ark. 42, 538 S.W.3d 819. A decision is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the appellate court, after reviewing the entire ...


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