DOZIER et al.
Superior Court of Jenkins County granted Jeffrey Watson's
petition for a writ of habeas corpus and set aside his
convictions for family violence aggravated battery based on
its finding that Watson's plea counsel provided him with
ineffective assistance in connection with the entry of his
guilty plea. The Warden appeals, arguing that the habeas
court applied an incorrect standard in evaluating
Watson's claim of ineffective assistance. For the reasons
explained below, we vacate the order and remand the case to
the habeas court for further proceedings consistent with this
conviction based on a guilty plea may be challenged on the
ground that defense counsel was constitutionally ineffective.
See Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 58-59
(106 S.Ct. 366, 88 L.Ed.2d 203) (1985). To prove his claim,
Watson was required to show that his counsel's
performance was deficient, that is, that no reasonable
attorney would have done what his lawyer did, or failed to do
what his lawyer did not. See Strickland v.
Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-689 (104 S.Ct. 2052, 80
L.Ed.2d 674) (1984); State v. Worsley, 293 Ga. 315,
323 (3) (745 S.E.2d 617) (2013). He was also required to
demonstrate prejudice, that is, "that there is a
reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he
would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on
going to trial." Hill, 474 U.S. at 59. In
reviewing the grant or denial of a petition for habeas
corpus, this Court accepts the habeas court's factual
findings and credibility determinations unless they are
clearly erroneous, but we independently apply the law to the
facts. See Schofield v. Meders, 280 Ga.
865, 866 (632 S.E.2d 369) (2006).
record shows that Watson was indicted by a Jackson County
grand jury on May 9, 2016, for criminal attempt to commit
malice murder, two counts of family violence aggravated
battery, and family violence aggravated assault in connection
with the stabbing of his father. With the assistance of
counsel, Watson pleaded guilty to both counts of aggravated
battery and to one count of aggravated assault. The State
agreed to enter an order of nolle prosequi on the attempted
murder count. The superior court sentenced Watson as a
recidivist, imposing twenty years' imprisonment on the
first count of aggravated battery and a consecutive ten-year
term of probation on the second count. The court merged the
aggravated assault count.
November 2017, Watson filed a petition for a writ of habeas
corpus, alleging, inter alia, that plea counsel was
ineffective for failing timely to advise him that he would be
sentenced as a recidivist pursuant to OCGA § 17-10-7 (c)
and that he would be ineligible for parole. An evidentiary
hearing was held on April 17, 2018. Watson and his plea
counsel testified and the Warden introduced into evidence a
copy of Watson's plea hearing transcript.
transcript of the plea hearing shows that, after the superior
court had accepted Watson's plea, the State recommended
that Watson be sentenced as a recidivist. Defense counsel
objected, arguing that the State had not provided the
required notice of its intent to seek recidivist punishment.
After finding the State's notice in an email that had
been forwarded to him from his former law firm, counsel
acknowledged that the State had indeed sent the notice,
although to an old address. Counsel then explained the
State's sentencing intentions to Watson. During the
hearing on Watson's habeas petition, plea counsel
testified that he had a brief, whispered discussion with
Watson about the consequences of recidivist punishment and
his option to withdraw his guilty plea before the court
imposed sentence. Counsel testified that, if he thought that
Watson did not understand what they had discussed, he would
have asked the court to delay the proceeding. Watson,
however, testified that plea counsel did not discuss
recidivist punishment with him and that, if he had understood
the consequences of the recidivist punishment sought by the
State, he would not have pleaded guilty.
22, 2018, the habeas court entered a brief, written order
finding that counsel's performance was deficient because
he "failed to adequately advise [Watson] that he would
be sentenced as a recidivist until after his plea was already
entered." The habeas court did not evaluate whether
counsel's deficient performance prejudiced Watson.
Rather, the court concluded that prejudice was "apparent
because [Watson] was deprived of constitutionally sufficient
Warden does not challenge the habeas court's findings
concerning plea counsel's deficient performance. Rather,
the Warden contends only that the habeas court, by
"conflating" deficient performance and prejudice,
failed to properly analyze whether Watson was prejudiced by
counsel's deficient performance. The deficient
performance and prejudice prongs of the Strickland
test are two separate inquiries, and the habeas court was,
indeed, required to determine whether Watson had shown
"that there is a reasonable probability that, but for
counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and
would have insisted on going to trial." Hill,
474 U.S. at 59.
cannot, as Watson argues, simply uphold the grant of habeas
corpus relief because it is "the right decision."
Because the habeas court failed to properly analyze the
prejudice prong, its order lacks a factually supported legal
conclusion essential to its ruling on Watson's
ineffective assistance of counsel claim and essential to our
appellate review of that ruling. Therefore, we vacate the
habeas court's judgment and remand this case to the
habeas court with instruction to enter a new order consistent
with this opinion and containing the requisite findings of
fact and conclusions of law. See OCGA §
9-14-49; Thomas v. State, 284 Ga. 327, 328 (2) (667
S.E.2d 375) (2008), overruled on other grounds, Crosson
v. Conway, 291 Ga. 220, 222 (728 S.E.2d 617) (2012).
vacated and remanded with direction. All ...