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Williams v. State

Court of Appeals of Iowa

April 4, 2018

TROY A. WILLIAMS, Applicant-Appellant,
v.
STATE OF IOWA, Respondent-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Scott County, Paul L. Macek, Judge.

         The applicant appeals the denial of his application for postconviction relief.

          Eric D. Tindal of Keegan and Farnsworth, Iowa City, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Tyler J. Buller, Assistant Attorney General, and Jeffrey A. Critchlow, Student Legal Intern, for appellee.

          Heard by Potterfield, P.J., and Mullins and Bower, JJ.

          POTTERFIELD, Presiding Judge.

         Troy Williams appeals the denial of his application for postconviction relief (PCR). Williams maintains his PCR counsel committed structural error and asks that we remand for a new trial of his PCR application.[1]

         Though Williams's right to effective assistance of counsel in a PCR action is statutory, not constitutional, we review his claim de novo. See Lado v. State, 804 N.W.2d 248, 250 (Iowa 2011) (citing Dunbar v. State, 515 N.W.2d 12, 14-15 (Iowa 1994)); see also Iowa Code § 822.5 (2015).

         Generally, when an applicant claims counsel provided ineffective assistance, the applicant has the burden to establish (1) his counsel failed to perform an essential duty and (2) this failure resulted in prejudice. Lado, 804 N.W.2d at 251. However, when a claimant maintains counsel committed "structural errors, " "'[n]o specific showing of prejudice [is] required' as the criminal adversary process itself is 'presumptively unreliable.'" Id. at 252 (alterations in original) (quoting United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 659 (1984)). "Structural errors are not merely errors in a legal proceeding, but errors 'affecting the framework within which the trial proceeds.'" Id. (quoting Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 310 (1991)). When a structural error occurs, "the underlying criminal proceeding is so unreliable the constitutional or statutory right to counsel entitles the defendant to a new proceeding without the need to show the error actually caused prejudice." Id.

         Our supreme court has recognized three categories of structural error, where:

(1) counsel is completely denied, actually or constructively, at a crucial stage of the proceeding; (2) where counsel does not place the prosecution's case against meaningful adversarial testing; or (3) where surrounding circumstances justify a presumption of ineffectiveness, such as where counsel has an actual conflict of interest in jointly representing multiple defendants.

Id. Courts have found structural error where counsel allowed the claimant's PCR application to be dismissed or where counsel failed to file an appeal altogether. See, e.g., Lado, 804 N.W.2d at 253; see also Roe v. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470, 484 (2000). Such conclusions make sense, as "no presumption of reliability can be accorded to judicial proceedings that never took place." Dockery v. State, No. 13-2067, 2016 WL 351251, at *4 (Iowa Ct. App. Jan. 27, 2016) (citing Roe, 528 U.S. at 484).

         Those are not the facts presently before us. Here PCR counsel-who was appointed almost a year after Williams filed his pro se application for PCR-filed a motion entitled, "motion for trial setting conference and relief from rule 1.944" almost immediately upon being appointed. The motion was granted, a trial scheduling conference was set, and Williams's PCR application avoided a rule 1.944 dismissal for want of prosecution.

         After the successful February 2016 motion, PCR counsel faltered in his duty to the court and his client. By the time of the PCR hearing almost a year later, PCR counsel had not investigated or prepared the issues raised by Williams in his pro se application for relief. PCR counsel failed to prepare or present his client's claims in any meaningful adversarial context. In his pro se PCR application, ...


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