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Minnesota Supreme Court: Prisoner Entitled to Appointed Attorney for One Review of Conviction, Even When It’s Not a Direct Appeal

by Christopher Zoukis

The Supreme Court of Minnesota ruled that a convicted defendant is entitled to appointed counsel, pursuant to statute, for one review of his or her conviction—even if that review is on a petition for postconviction relief, as opposed to a direct appeal. The Court’s January 24, 2018 opinion clarified Minn. Stat. § 590.05 (2016), which provides that a convicted defendant is entitled to representation by a public defender “if the person has not already had a direct appeal of the conviction.”

In 2012, Jamil Joshua Eason was convicted of first-degree felony murder. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of release after 30 years. Soon after his conviction, Eason filed a notice of appeal, supported by a 24-page brief drafted by his public defender. Prior to the date that the State’s responsive brief was due, Eason voluntarily dismissed his appeal. Nothing in the record indicated why he did this.

Almost two years later, Eason filed a pro se petition for postconviction relief. He requested that counsel be appointed pursuant to § 590.05. Because Easton had fired his public defender during his aborted direct appeal, the state public defender’s office declined to represent him, noting that he “chose to terminate our representation” during his direct appeal. The postconviction court then denied Eason’s petition without a hearing.

Eason appealed, arguing that he was entitled to appointed counsel for his postconviction relief petition pursuant to the statute. The Court had previously determined, in Deegan v. State, 711 N.W.2d 89 (Minn. 2006), that “a defendant’s right to the assistance of counsel . . . extends to one review of a criminal conviction, whether by direct appeal or a first review by postconviction proceeding.” But here, it was unclear whether Eason actually “had” his direct appeal.

The Minnesota Supreme Court noted that “[w]e have not decided whether an applicant, represented in a direct appeal from a judgment of conviction who voluntarily dismisses the appeal before a decision by the court on the merits of the appeal has ‘had a direct appeal of conviction’” for purposes of the statutory right to appointed counsel.

The Court concluded that Eason did not have a direct appeal within the meaning of § 590.05. In order to have a direct appeal, an appellate court must have reviewed the case. Applying dictionary definitions, the Court instructed that “the plain and unambiguous meaning of ‘review’ means that the appellate court must have the opportunity to reexamine the case being appealed.” [emphasis in original] The reexamination of a case requires that it be submitted for decision to the appellate court.

According to the Court, “a case is submitted for decision when all the briefing has been completed” and it is taken “under advisement at the conclusion of oral argument.” In the absence of oral argument, “an appellant has had a ‘review’ as of the date scheduled for nonoral consideration.”

In Eason’s case, the appellate court that summarily dismissed his postconviction relief did not “reexamine” the case because it was not properly submitted to the appellate court for decision. In the Court’s view, the case on appeal was not submitted because briefing was not complete, and there was no oral argument. Because Eason’s case was not properly reexamined on direct appeal, he was entitled to appointment of counsel for postconviction relief proceedings.

“Eason’s direct appeal was dismissed before briefing was completed and before we scheduled the appeal for consideration,” wrote the Court. “He has not yet had his conviction reviewed. Therefore, he was entitled to an appointed attorney for postconviction proceedings. The postconviction court erred in not granting Eason’s request for counsel.”

Accordingly, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the decision of the postconviction court and remanded the case for appointment of counsel and further proceedings. See: State v. Eason, 906 N.W.2d 840 (Minn. 2018). 

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