Kathleen Kennedy, Warden, challenges a habeas court's
order setting aside Deborah Hines's convictions and
sentences for four counts of identity fraud. In its order
granting habeas relief, the habeas court determined that the
trial court improperly participated in the plea process such
that Hines's plea was involuntary and violated due
process. Having reviewed the record, we conclude that the
habeas court erred by placing on the Warden, the habeas
respondent, the burden of proving that Hines's guilty
plea was voluntary, knowing, or intelligent, and further
erred by concluding that the trial court's comments at
the hearing rendered Hines's plea involuntary. We
therefore reverse the habeas court's order.
record shows that in November 2009, a jury found Deborah
Hines guilty of four counts of identity fraud. The trial
court sentenced her as a recidivist under OCGA § 17-10-7
(c) to an aggregate of 45 years with 20 to serve. Hines filed
a motion for new trial, new counsel was appointed, and a
hearing was held on March 21, 2013. At the outset of that
hearing, the State announced that it had reached an agreement
with Hines's counsel whereby Hines would plead guilty to
the four counts of identify fraud and forego her motion for
new trial, and the State would recommend a reduced recidivist
sentence of 45 years, to serve 15. As part of the plea deal,
Hines also expressly agreed to waive her right to direct
appeal and to seek habeas relief; to dismiss any pending
lawsuits she had filed against any judge, prosecutor, or law
enforcement officer in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit; and to
dismiss bar complaints against the prosecutors in her case.
The court accepted Hines's negotiated plea and sentenced
her to 45 years, to serve 15.
January 6, 2017, Hines filed a habeas corpus petition. Among
other things, she claimed that her "conviction [was]
obtained by plea of guilty which was unlawfully induce[d] or
not made voluntarily." The Warden filed a motion to
dismiss on the grounds that Hines had waived her right to
seek habeas relief. In response, Hines asserted that she did
not enter her plea knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily;
that the trial court improperly participated in her plea; and
that the signature on the final disposition was not hers.
After an initial hearing that resulted in the denial of the
Warden's motion to dismiss, the Warden renewed her motion
to dismiss, and the habeas court held another hearing where
it took additional evidence.
April 18, 2018, the habeas court entered an order granting
habeas relief and setting aside Hines's convictions and
sentences because "the trial court improperly inserted
itself in the plea process" with "unduly
coercive" statements that intimidated Hines,
"rendering Petitioner's plea involuntary." The
habeas court cited Lejeune v. McLaughlin, 296 Ga.
291 (766 S.E.2d 803) (2014), for the general proposition that
guilty pleas must be voluntary, knowing, and intelligent, but
the habeas court also asserted that, at the habeas stage,
"the State" bore the burden of demonstrating the
voluntariness of a plea. Citing Uniform Superior Court Rule
33.5 (A) and State v. Hayes, 301 Ga. 342, 345 (801
S.E.2d 50) (2017), the habeas court noted that
"participation in the plea negotiation process is
prohibited by court rule" and "prohibited as a
constitutional matter when it is so great as to render a plea
involuntary." See USCR 33.5 (A) ("The trial judge
should not participate in plea discussions."). It then
concluded that although the trial court had sufficiently
advised Hines of the rights listed in Boykin v.
Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 243 (89 S.Ct. 1709, 23 L.Ed.2d
274) (1969), the court had improperly participated in the
plea process and Hines's plea was rendered involuntary
based on the following exchange:
THE COURT: How do you plead to these four charges?
THE DEFENDANT: I'm pleading guilty, but actually, I
don't want no trial, but I'm not guilty for these
THE COURT: Ms. Hines, now, look, if you're not --
you've already been found guilty --
THE DEFENDANT: I know.
THE COURT: -- by a jury and I don't want to play any
games with you here today. Do you want to enter your guilty
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: And do you admit your guilt?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, sir.
In particular, the habeas court deemed "unduly
coercive" the portion of the exchange where the trial
court reminded Hines that a jury had already found her guilty
and stated: "I don't want to play any games."
The Warden filed a timely notice of appeal, and the ...