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Morris v. State

Supreme Court of North Dakota

June 27, 2019

Nicholas Charles Morris, Petitioner and Appellant
v.
State of North Dakota, Respondent and Appellee

          Appeal from the District Court of Cass County, East Central Judicial District, the Honorable Wade L. Webb, Judge.

          Erica M. Woehl, Bismarck, ND, for petitioner and appellant.

          Reid 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.

          OPINION

          MCEVERS, JUSTICE.

         [¶1] 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.

         I

         [¶2] 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.

         [¶3] 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.

         [¶4] 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.

         [¶5] 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.

         II

         [¶6] 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, ...


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