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Kennedy v. Kohnle

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 19, 2018

KENNEDY
v.
KOHNLE.

          Peterson, Justice.

         This case raises a question regarding the retroactive application of Alexander v. State, 297 Ga. 59 (772 S.E.2d 655) (2015), in which we held that an attorney's failure to counsel his client about parole eligibility may give rise to a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Teresa Lynn Kohnle pleaded guilty to felony murder in December 2010, before we decided Alexander but after the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (130 S.Ct. 1473, 176 L.Ed.2d 284) (2010), on which we relied in deciding Alexander. Sentenced to life in prison, Kohnle filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that her plea counsel was ineffective in several ways, including that he failed to inform her of the parole eligibility implications of a life sentence. The habeas court granted Kohnle's petition, relying on Alexander to conclude that Kohnle's counsel had rendered ineffective assistance. The Warden appeals, arguing that the habeas court erred in applying Alexander retroactively. We agree with the Warden that the habeas court erred by applying Alexander to find that plea counsel performed deficiently by failing to advise Kohnle that she would not be eligible for parole for 30 years if she pleaded guilty, and thus we vacate the habeas court's order. But we remand for the habeas court to consider Kohnle's claim that counsel was deficient for affirmatively misinforming her about parole eligibility matters, something we had held could support a claim of ineffective assistance long before Kohnle entered her plea. See Smith v. Williams, 277 Ga. 778, 778-779 (1) (596 S.E.2d 112) (2004).

         1. Factual background

         Kohnle was indicted in August 2008 for malice murder, felony murder, and two counts of first degree arson in connection with the June 2007 death of her husband in a house fire. At the December 2010 plea hearing, Kohnle suggested to the trial court that she participated in setting the fire at her husband's direction as part of a financial plot and that she never intended for him to be harmed. The trial court stated that he would accept the guilty plea. Moving into sentencing, Kohnle told the court, "I just beg that you have mercy on me for this, because I know I didn't mean any harm." The trial court asked Kohnle whether she understood that he had "no control over the parole board." Kohnle replied:

THE DEFENDANT: I do. Is there a minimal amount of time that I
have to -
THE COURT: Yes, ma'am.
THE DEFENDANT: - serve before I'm even -
THE COURT: Yes, ma'am.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Your Honor, [a parole officer] has shared with me the ranges and I've discussed those with her.
THE COURT: Okay.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: I have told her many times and she's actually acknowledged in writing that we cannot give her a specific number.
THE COURT: Well, I don't get in to giving specific numbers. I mean, there are statutes and things in the Georgia Constitution that apply to your sentence, but that's not - I'm not - you know, I can't tell you when you'll get out. ...

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