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Garren v. State

Supreme Court of South Carolina

April 25, 2018

Brandon Garren, Respondent,
v.
State of South Carolina, Petitioner. Appellate Case No. 2015-000756

          Submitted September 27, 2017

          Appeal from Pickens County Eugene C. Griffith, Jr., Post-Conviction Relief Judge.

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI

          Attorney General Alan Wilson and Assistant Attorney General Ruston W. Neely, both of Columbia, for Petitioner.

          Appellate Defender David Alexander, of Columbia, for Respondent.

          KITTREDGE JUSTICE.

         Respondent Brandon Garren pled guilty to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature (ABHAN) and criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature (CDVHAN) in connection with a series of brutal attacks on his live-in girlfriend (Victim). He was sentenced to concurrent prison terms of fifteen years and ten years, respectively. No direct appeal was taken. Garren then filed an application for post-conviction relief (PCR). The PCR court granted relief, finding plea counsel was ineffective for failing to obtain a competency evaluation prior to Garren's guilty plea and that Garren's plea was involuntary due to his use of medication. We reverse and reinstate Garren's guilty plea and sentence.

         I.

         In January 2012, the Pickens County Sheriff's Office responded to a call and found Garren screaming at the Victim with a pistol in his pocket. The Victim was crying and had visible injuries. The Victim stated Garren repeatedly struck her and swung an ax at her head, barely missing her. The responding officers found an ax on the premises and saw a hole in the wall which the Victim indicated occurred when Garren swung the ax at her head. The Victim also indicated Garren had pointed the gun at her when she called law enforcement.

         Thereafter, in June 2012, the Sheriff's Office responded to another call, this time from neighbors, who heard the Victim screaming and noticed the Victim outside, badly beaten and partially clothed, wandering in the yard while holding her pants. The Victim told deputies she and Garren had been apart, but Garren picked her up and held her against her will for a week, threatening to kill her if she left and beating her repeatedly over the last two days.

         This attack began in the bathroom, where Garren forced unknown pills down the Victim's throat and asked her if she wanted to die. Then Garren submerged the Victim in the bathtub and told her that he was authorized, as her husband, to beat her. Garren tied up the Victim and dragged her throughout the house, beating her with golf clubs, wine bottles, a medicine cabinet, a toaster oven, a lantern, and a belt, all of which were recovered from the scene. The Victim believed she was going to die, so she encouraged Garren to take some pills, which eventually caused him to pass out. At that point, the Victim grabbed her clothes and tried to escape, but she could not see due to her facial swelling, and she was found wandering along a fence by neighbors who heard her screams and called police.

         The Victim's injuries were extensive. Her eyes were swollen shut and her face was severely beaten, with broken bones requiring multiple facial reconstructive surgeries. She had blood and glass throughout her hair, and her hair had to be cut off to remove the debris. The Victim also required dental reconstructive surgery to replace the teeth knocked out during the attacks, and she underwent neurological evaluations due to the extreme nature of her injuries and resulting trauma. When law enforcement arrived, the Victim was transported to the Intensive Care Unit in Greenville.

         As a result of these incidents, Garren was charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, CDVHAN, and pointing and presenting a firearm, and Garren retained counsel to represent him. Garren faced up to a total of eighty-five years in prison-up to thirty years each for the attempted murder and kidnapping charges; up to twenty years for the CDVHAN charge; and up to five years for the firearm charge. See S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-29 (attempted murder); id. § 16-3-910 (kidnapping); id. § 16-25-65(B) (CDVHAN); id. § 16-23-410 (pointing and presenting). Following plea counsel's negotiations with the State, Garren entered a "straight up" guilty plea to CDVHAN and the lesser charge of ABHAN. The more serious charges (and the firearm charge) were dropped.

         During the plea proceeding, the assistant solicitor stated "[the victim's] face was beaten worse than any woman's face I've ever seen. I've never seen anything like that." Garren informed the plea judge that he understood the offenses to which he was pleading guilty; the constitutional rights, as enumerated by the plea judge, that he was waiving; and the possible sentences that could be imposed. Garren stated he had discussed his situation with plea counsel and that he was "most satisfied" with counsel's services. Notably, Garren confirmed he was not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol and that no one promised him anything or forced him to plead guilty.

         During the plea hearing, plea counsel told the judge that Garren suffered from various physical health problems and that Garren "obviously has some mental problems." Counsel claimed that at the time of the incidents, both Garren and the Victim abused prescription medications and that Garren had "little" memory of the incidents. However, counsel explained that since entering the detention facility, Garren was much improved, as he had "gotten off pills" and gained weight- almost fifty pounds.

         Plea counsel asked the plea court to consider a three- to five-year sentence with five years' probation and substance abuse treatment; however, the plea court found "[t]his case is beyond [the] pale" and sentenced Garren to concurrent prison terms of fifteen years for ABHAN and ten years for CDVHAN. No direct appeal was taken.

         Garren filed a PCR application alleging counsel was ineffective for failing to request a mental health evaluation and that Garren's guilty plea was rendered involuntary as a result of medications he was given while in jail which impaired his ability to understand the plea proceedings. Specifically, Garren alleged:

Due to being in a state of lethargy from medication given to me by the [P]ickens County Jail which was mind altering, and the result of medical treatment being given me by the Cancer Center of the Carolinas, The combined effects rendered me unable to, or incompetent to enter a plea.

         Garren nevertheless failed to offer at the PCR hearing any evidence as to the specific medications and dosages he was administered at the Pickens County jail while awaiting trial and during the time period immediately prior to his guilty plea.

         At the PCR hearing, plea counsel testified that Garren initially faced several serious charges and that the photographs depicting the Victim's extensive facial injuries were "devastating" to Garren's case. Plea counsel testified that he negotiated a reduction in charges, as well as a plea offer from the State for a total of fifteen years, which Garren rejected.

         Plea counsel testified that there was no indication Garren had any mental health issues at the time of the plea that necessitated further evaluation. Plea counsel explained that he never saw the need for Garren to undergo a competency evaluation, but that he was bothered by the length of the sentence Garren ultimately received. It is abundantly clear from the record that counsel was anticipating a different plea judge. As plea counsel testified, Garren was expected to appear before a different plea judge in the morning, but Garren was not transported from jail until the afternoon. Counsel stated he firmly believed that "the switch in judges . . . added something to [Garren's] sentence. I can't say how much. But I think it did add something." Counsel stated Garren came from "a great family" and explained that, in hindsight, based on the actual sentence received:

I really wish that we had taken the time to get a psychological evaluation. Because while I did, at that time, believe him to be competent[, ] and I continue to believe he is competent, I believe there are some psychological issues that would have mitigated his punishment and materially affected the sentence that he got. And I really regret that I did not do that.

(emphasis added).

         When asked if Garren seemed confused or "out of it" at the plea proceeding, counsel stated Garren's affect is always "a little bit spacey" but Garren nevertheless appeared to follow everything that was happening, and at no time did Garren indicate he did not understand what was going on.

         Garren's testimony was similar to counsel's, as he, too, focused on the length of his sentence. Garren testified that he was unhappy with his sentence, specifically claiming he believed he was going to receive a sentence of two to five years, plus probation, but that fell through when he "got the wrong judge." Garren admitted that plea counsel never promised Garren he would receive a two- to five-year sentence. And the plea judge, in a thorough guilty plea colloquy, explained the potential sentence Garren was facing.

         While it is manifest the focus of Garren's PCR is the length of his sentence, he may not challenge a lawful sentence merely because he was hoping for a more lenient one. Garren, of course, understands that, and he has postured his PCR on the basis that his plea counsel was ineffective for failing to request a competency evaluation. Garren is uncertain whether he ever requested a competency evaluation, but he thinks his mother may have asked for one. Garren's mother did not testify at the PCR hearing, and Garren offered no evidence of what a mental health evaluation would have shown had one been sought prior to his guilty plea.

         As to the voluntariness of his guilty plea, Garren claimed he did not understand or have any recollection of the plea proceeding itself-including that he informed the judge his plea was not induced by any promises or threats and that he was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. As to the issue of medication, Garren testified on direct examination:

Q: Now, I know you've raised some issues in regards to your case. And one of them is dealing with medication and the effects on you regarding-understanding what was going on. Can you go into some detail about that?
A: I don't know what kind of medication they was giving me in the county. But they have a way of giving medication that's-they have a bunch of little glasses on a tray. And they just give you medicine. I don't know if they give me the wrong medicine or what they done. But I had a reaction two different times to that medicine they give me.
Q: Okay. Have you at any time ever had a mental evaluation?
A: No, sir. They never did have me one for - while I was in the county ...

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