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Rhode Island High Court Abolishes Shatney in Initial Application for Postconviction Relief by Prisoners Serving Life Without Parole

by Matt Clarke

On December 5, 2017, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island held that, “from this point forward, Shatney v. State, 755 A.2d 130 (R.I. 2000), shall be deemed abrogated and inapplicable in any case involving both an initial application for postconviction relief and an applicant who has been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.”

It further held that the Shatney hearing given to a prisoner sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (“LWOP”) had not been sufficient to qualify as the evidentiary hearing the court had previously required for prisoners serving LWOP on first application for postconviction relief pursuant to Tassone v. State, 42 A.3d 1277 (R.I. 2012). That is, Tassone mandates that prisoners serving LWOP receive an evidentiary hearing on the merits with respect to the first application for postconviction relief.

Jeremy Motyka, a Rhode Island prisoner serving LWOP, filed his first application for postconviction relief, which was denied. He appealed, and the Rhode Island Supreme Court vacated the superior court’s judgment after the State conceded that the hearing justice failed to follow the procedure set forth in Shatney for a hearing on withdrawal of court-appointed counsel.

On remand, Motyka’s court-appointed attorney filed a motion to withdraw and a brief in support of the motion stating the issues raised in the application for postconviction relief were frivolous. Motyka filed a pro se motion to strike the motion to withdraw, which court-appointed counsel objected to because Motyka was still represented by counsel. The State filed a motion to dismiss the application.

The superior court held a hearing on the motion to withdraw. Court-appointed counsel discussed each of the nine grounds for relief raised in Motyka’s application, arguing that they had no merit. Motyka was given an opportunity to argue in favor of each ground, but he was unprepared to do so and became what he called “tongue-tied in the courtroom,” saying “I can’t” more than once and only actually addressing one of the grounds.

At the close of the hearing, the hearing justice granted the motion to withdraw and found court-appointed counsel’s “No Merit Memorandum is justified; and, therefore, the Court is denying and dismissing Mr. Motyka’s postconviction relief application.” Motyka appealed.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court conducted a comprehensive review of the transcript of the case and found that the hearing on the motion to withdraw “was not the hearing that we required in Tassone.” Shatney had set forth a procedure for withdrawal of court-appointed counsel. It mandated that court-appointed counsel seeking to withdraw file a “no-merit” memorandum detailing the nature and extent of counsel’s review of the case, listing each issue the applicant wishes raised, and explaining why each issue lacks merit. The court must then conduct a hearing with applicant present and, should it agree that the issues lack arguable merit, permit counsel to withdraw and advise the applicant that further proceedings must be pro se.

The Supreme Court found particularly disquieting that Motyka’s court-appointed counsel, who was arguing against the merits of Motyka’s claims while seeking to withdraw, was advising him on how to answer the hearing justice’s questions and how to submit evidence.

The linkage of the ruling on the “no-merit” memorandum and the dismissal of the postconviction application also made the Court uneasy since one is not determinative of the other. Therefore, the Court concluded “that Shatney and Tassone are inconsistent with each other and may not properly be permitted to coexist as it relates to life without parole cases.”

Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment of the superior court and remanded the case for further proceedings. It instructed “that on remand counsel be appointed for Mr. Motyka and that the Superior Court conduct further proceedings in accordance with this opinion and our opinion in Tassone.” See: Motyka v. State, 172 A.3d 1203 (R.I. 2017). 

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Related legal case

Motyka v. State



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