from the District Court of Cass County, East Central Judicial
District, the Honorable Wade L. Webb, Judge.
M. Woehl, Bismarck, ND, for petitioner and appellant.
A. Brady (argued), Assistant State's Attorney, Ryan J.
Younggren (on brief), Assistant State's Attorney, and
Nicholas Samuelson (appeared), third-year law student, under
the Rule on Limited Practice of Law by Law Students, Fargo,
ND, for respondent and appellee.
Nicholas Charles Morris appeals from a district court order
denying his application for post-conviction relief. On
appeal, Morris argues the district court erred in denying his
application for post-conviction relief because (1) accomplice
to commit murder is not a cognizable offense, and (2) he was
deprived of his right to effective assistance of counsel. He
also argues he should be permitted to withdraw his guilty
plea. We affirm the district court's order and hold
accomplice to commit murder is a cognizable offense, Morris
was not deprived of his right to effective assistance of
counsel, and he has failed to show a manifest injustice
warranting the withdrawal of his guilty plea.
In May 2015, Morris was involved in a physical altercation
which resulted in Joey Gaarsland's death. Morris was
charged with three counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated
assault and one count of murder. Attorney Nicholas Thornton
appeared on Morris' behalf in some of the early
proceedings but was never formally retained. In July 2015,
before the preliminary hearing, the State submitted a brief
in support of findings of probable cause and attached as an
exhibit a letter written by Morris directed to the
State's attorney, admitting to his involvement in the
physical altercation. On March 11, 2016, at the change of
plea hearing, Morris entered Alford pleas to charges
in the amended information including one count of accomplice
to commit extreme indifference murder and two counts of
conspiracy to commit aggravated assault. Approximately one
month before sentencing, Morris' counsel, Mark Blumer,
moved to withdraw as counsel. The district court denied the
motion. Morris was sentenced on October 17, 2016.
On November 17, 2017, Morris, acting on his own behalf, filed
an application for post-conviction relief, alleging
ineffective assistance of counsel against Blumer, judicial
bias, and prosecutorial misconduct. The State answered on
November 20, 2017, and asserted the affirmative defenses of
res judicata and misuse of process. On February 26, 2018,
Morris filed a supplemental application for post-conviction
relief with the assistance of court-appointed counsel. The
supplemental application argued accomplice to commit extreme
indifference murder is not a cognizable offense, Morris
received ineffective assistance of counsel (directed at both
Thornton and Blumer), Morris was deprived of his right to
counsel when the district court denied Blumer's motion to
withdraw as counsel, and Morris' plea was not knowing and
voluntary. On March 27, 2018, the State responded, moving to
dismiss all of Morris' claims, arguing the claims were
barred as an abuse of process and res judicata because Morris
failed to raise those arguments during the pendency of the
criminal case or in an appeal therefrom.
Post-conviction hearings were held in June and August 2018
where Blumer, Thornton, and Morris testified, and several
exhibits were admitted. On August 24, 2018, the district
court issued an order denying Morris' application for
post-conviction relief, concluding accomplice to murder is a
cognizable offense, and finding the greater weight of the
evidence demonstrated Blumer and Thornton's
representation did not fall below an objective standard of
reasonableness. The court further concluded Blumer's
motion to withdraw as counsel was properly denied, and found
the record demonstrated Morris knowingly, voluntarily, and
intelligently pleaded guilty to the amended information.
Morris appeals from the district court's order denying
his application for post-conviction relief, arguing the court
erred because (1) accomplice to commit murder is not a
cognizable offense, and (2) he was deprived his right to
effective assistance of counsel. He also argues he should be
permitted to withdraw his guilty plea.
We review district court orders on applications for
post-conviction relief as follows:
Post-conviction relief proceedings are civil in nature and
governed by the North Dakota Rules of Civil Procedure. The
petitioner bears the burden of establishing grounds for
post-conviction relief. When we review a district court's
decision in a post-conviction proceeding, questions of law
are fully reviewable. The district court's findings of
fact in a post-conviction proceeding will not be disturbed on
appeal unless they are clearly erroneous under N.D.R.Civ.P.
52(a). A finding of fact is clearly erroneous if it is
induced by an erroneous view of the law, if it is not
supported by any evidence, or if, although there is some
evidence to support the finding, a reviewing court is left
with a definite and firm conviction a mistake has been made.
Curtiss v. State, 2016 ND 62, ¶ 7, 877 N.W.2d
58 (citations omitted). "Construction of a statute is a
question of law, fully reviewable by this court."
Interest of M.M., 2019 ND 64, ...