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State v. Hammette

May 27, 1997

STATE OF WASHINGTON, RESPONDENT,
v.
HARRELL ESTES HAMMETTE, APPELLANT.



Appeal from Superior Court of Whatcom County. Docket No: 93-1-00280-0. Date filed: 10/05/95. Judge signing: Hon. Michael F. Moynihan.

Authored by William W. Baker. Concurring: Walter E. Webster, Susan R. Agid.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baker

BAKER, C.J. - Courts may not accept a guilty plea unless it is intelligently and voluntarily made by a competent defendant. Once a plea has been entered, a defendant must satisfy a demanding standard before he will be permitted to withdraw the plea: the defendant must show that a manifest inJustice requires withdrawal. Because this appeal mainly involves credibility determinations which are within the province of the trial court, we decline to reverse the trial court's factual determinations. We uphold the denial of Harrell Estes Hammette's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, and affirm his conviction of sexual exploitation of a minor and child molestation in the first degree.

Because this opinion will not be published, and the parties are familiar with the facts, we proceed without an introductory summary of the facts.

I

When a defendant moves to withdraw a guilty plea prior to sentencing, "the defendant must show that a manifest inJustice requires withdrawal of the guilty plea." *fn1 A "manifest inJustice" is one that is obvious, directly observable, overt and not obscure. *fn2 State v. Taylor established a list of four nonexclusive indicia of manifest inJustice, two of which are relevant to this case: denial of effective counsel and an involuntary plea. *fn3

A trial court's denial of a motion to withdraw a guilty plea is reviewed for abuse of discretion. *fn4 Whether a guilty plea was voluntarily, intelligently and understandingly made is a question of fact that will be upheld unless it is contrary to the clear preponderance of the evidence. *fn5

We address each of Hammette's arguments in turn: (1) the plea was not entered knowingly, because he was incompetent, (2) the plea was not entered voluntarily, because he was coerced by his attorney, and (3) he was denied effective assistance of counsel.

II

Mental Competency

Hammette argues that his guilty plea was not entered knowingly because he was mentally incompetent when the plea was entered. When incompetency is alleged, the standard is "'whether the plea represents a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternative courses of action open to the defendant.'" *fn6

In judging the mental competency of a defendant to plead guilty, the trial court is vested with broad discretion and may consider many factors, "including the defendant's appearance, demeanor, conduct, personal and family history, past behavior, medical and psychiatric reports, and the statements of counsel." *fn7 Expert opinion testimony is not binding on the trial court, and the credibility of witnesses is exclusively within the province of the trier of fact. *fn8

In order to establish that the trial court erred in denying a motion to withdraw a guilty plea on the ground of mental incompetency, the defendant must show some link between the claimed disorder and mental capacity during the plea proceedings. *fn9

At the plea hearings, Hammette was articulate, responded normally to questions and did not express any reservations or confusion. Hammette's attorney testified that he had explained the proceedings to Hammette, and that he believed Hammette was capable of and did make a knowing and understanding decision to plead guilty. The Judge that accepted the plea found that neither of the two medical experts who observed Hammette in jail expressed any reservations about Hammette's competency or concerns about his capacity to understand ...


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