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Wright v. Warden of Manning Correctional Institution

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

June 3, 2019

Troy M. Wright, # 244763, Petitioner,
Warden of Manning Correctional Institution, Respondent.



         Troy M. Wright, a state prisoner proceeding pro se, seeks habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Dkt. No. 1.) The Warden has moved for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 9.) Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(c) (D.S.C.), the undersigned is authorized to review the filings and make a recommendation to the District Judge. For the following reasons, the undersigned recommends granting the Warden summary judgment and dismissing the petition with prejudice.


         This case arises out of Wright attacking his ex-girlfriend in the middle of the night in October 2013. (Dkt. No. 8-1 at 9.) According to the State, Wright went to the convenience store where she worked the night shift and confronted her for speaking to another man. (Id. at 10.) He grabbed her by her throat, lifted her off the ground, and bit her nose. (Id.) He then threw her to the ground and beat her to the point of fracturing her skull. (Id. at 10, 11.) She received over two hundred stiches and spent three days in the hospital. (Id. at 11.)

         At first, Wright was charged with first-degree assault and battery. (Dkt. No. 8-1 at 17, 79.) The State offered to let him plead guilty to that charge. (Id. at 17.) Wright declined, however, because he could not agree to the State's condition that it would recommend he serve the ten-year maximum prison term. (Id. at 50, 51-52.)

         The prosecutor assigned to the case made that offer before learning of the extent of the victim's injuries. (Dkt. No. 8-1 at 59.) Once she learned about them, she obtained an indictment him for assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature (ABHAN). (Id. at 60.) That crime carries a twenty-year maximum prison term, and offenders must serve at least 85% of their prison sentences. S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-600(B)(2) (Supp. 2013); see S.C. Code Ann. §§ 24-13-150(A) (Supp. 2013) (requiring inmates convicted of “no-parole” offenses to serve at least of their 85% prison sentences); S.C. Code Ann. § 24-13-100 (2007) (defining “no-parole offense” to include “a class A, B, or C felony”); S.C. Code Ann. § 16-1-20 (2015) (defining a class C felony as one with a twenty-year maximum prison term).

         Wright's trial was scheduled for January 2015. (See Dkt. No. 8-1 at 52-53.) Shortly before trial, the State offered to let him plead guilty to ABHAN. (Id. at 53.) The prosecutor promised that the State would not make any recommendation about the length of his sentence. (Id. at 53, 54.) This time, Wright accepted the offer, entering an Alford[1] plea the day his trial was supposed to begin. (Id. at 5, 53.) At the hearing, the State told the court the details of the crime and then asked the court to impose the maximum sentence. (Id. at 9-13.) Wright's plea counsel did not object to the request or mention the plea agreement. She instead ask for leniency due to Wright having mental health problems. (Id. at 14-18.) The circuit court sentenced him to twenty years, suspended upon service of eight years in prison and five years of probation. (Id. at 19.) Wright did not file a direct appeal. (Id. at 49.)

         Several weeks after sentencing, Wright filed an application for post-conviction relief in state court. (Dkt. No. 8-1 at 21.) He claimed his attorney coerced him to plead guilty to ABHAN even though she knew his offense's facts actually constituted criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature (CDVHAN), a crime that carried a ten-year maximum sentence. See S.C. Code Ann. § 16-25-65(B) (Supp. 2013).[2] (Id. at 23.)

         The PCR court appointed an attorney, who filed an amended PCR application that added two more claims. (Dkt. No. 8-1 at 44.) First, he argued plea counsel was ineffective for failing to tell Wright, while the assault-and-battery offer was pending, that he would have been eligible for parole on that offense after serving 25% of his sentence. (Id.) Second, he claimed the State violated the plea agreement by asking the plea court to impose the maximum sentence. (Id. at 44- 45.)

         The PCR court held a hearing. At the start of the hearing, PCR counsel said the “two main issues” were the ones raised in the amended application. (Dkt. No. 8-1 at 49.) Wright then testified, telling the court that he entered the Alford plea only because the prosecutor promised not to recommend a sentence; had he known the prosecutor would ask for the maximum sentence, he would have gone to trial. (Id. at 53-54.) Plea counsel testified as well. Among other things, she told the PCR court she did not object to the prosecutor's request because the prosecutor used the word “ask” instead of “recommend.” (Id. at 63.) In plea counsel's view, the prosecutor did not violate the plea agreement because she promised only not to recommend any sentence. (Id.)

         The PCR court issued an order denying Wright's application. Its order acknowledged only Wright's original claim-that plea counsel failed to pursue a plea deal for an ABHAN lesser-included offense. (Dkt. No. 8-1 at 75.) After quoting the portion of Wright's petition stating that claim, the PCR court interpreted the claim as one that plea counsel “exposed him to a possible twenty[-]year, violent, and serious offense of Assault and Battery of a High and Aggravated Nature (ABHAN), by not informing him of the statute's collateral consequences associated with ABHAN.” (Id. at 75-76.) The PCR court found no merit to that theory. (Id. at 76.) The PCR court then concluded its order without ruling on any of Wright's actual claims or mentioning either of the claims in his amended PCR application.

         Wright's PCR counsel did not make a motion for the PCR court to alter or amend its order. Instead, a different attorney petitioned the state Supreme Court for certiorari. (Dkt. No. 8-2.) She raised two related issues:

1. Whether Petitioner's guilty plea was knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily made where he pled guilty pursuant to North Carolina v. Alford, 200 U.S. 25 (1970)[, ] based on plea counsel's assurance that the state would not make a sentence recommendation during the hearing and where instead the assistant solicitor asked the court to sentence Petitioner to the maximum twenty years' imprisonment?
2. Did the PCR court err by failing to rule on Petitioner's claim that his guilty plea was not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily made based on plea counsel's ineffective assistance of counsel since Petitioner properly raised the claim in his amended application, presented extensive evidence related to the claim at the evidentiary hearing, and the PCR court accepted oral argument from counsel on the claim at the conclusion of the hearing?

(Id. at 2.) In other words, PCR appellate counsel raised both the preservation of and the merits of a single issue.

         The Supreme Court transferred the case to the Court of Appeals, which denied certiorari in October 2018. (Dkt. No. 8-4.)


         Wright filed his § 2254 petition on December 11, 2018. (Dkt. No. 1 at 16.) In the petition, Wright raises three grounds for relief:

Ground One: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel/“Counsel Knew elements of CDV-HAN existed yet coerced Applicant to plead to a greater offense”
Supporting Facts: Applicant's Attorney failed to fight for him by pointing to the Court that all the facts pointed to a Criminal Domestic Violence and this is what Applicant's Attorney (Cantrell Frayer) should have pushed for instead of allowing him to blindly enter a plea deal where Applicant received a sentence serving 85% with probation. Attorney Frayer advised Applicant Troy Wright that the State would not make any recommendations in which after Applicant pled guilty, the State did recommend maximum sentence.
Ground Two: Breach of Plea Agreement
Supporting Facts: The Solicitor in this case, Kelley Young, Esquire, violated the terms of the plea agreement by asking the Court to impose the maximum term of imprisonment. Before agreeing to plead guilty, Applicant Troy M. Wight was lead to believe that the Solicitor would take no stand on sentencing. At the sentencing hearing the Solicitor asked the judge for the maximum term. Prior to pleading guilty, Applicant was unaware that the Solicitor would ask for the most severe penalty. Therefore the Solicitor's Office breached its agreement.
Ground Three: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Supporting Facts: Applicant's Court Appointed Attorney claimed that she had not practiced law in over a year and that she had no knowledge of sentencing guidelines pertaining to this case.

(Dkt. No. 1 at 6, 8, 9.) Wright seeks either relief from his conviction or a reduced ...

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