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Third Circuit Grants Habeas Relief in Loss of GBMI Plea in Pennsylvania Court Due to IAC, Announces New Rule

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit granted habeas relief on September 3, 2019, to a Pennsylvania state prisoner who had lost his opportunity to enter a “guilty but mentally ill” (“GBMI”) plea because of trial counsel’s ineffective assistance, which in effect deprived him of a proceeding to which he had a right.

The question of first impression came before the court 10 years after Anthony Velazquez was sentenced in Pennsylvania state court for burglary, intimidating a witness, terrorist threats, and harassment after he got into an altercation with his girlfriend, and then he attempted to dissuade her from testifying by making threats. And when he refused to be placed in a cell, a guard sustained scratches on his arm during the incident. Velazquez was charged with aggravated assault for that incident.

At his plea hearing, Velazquez agreed, under the advice of counsel, to enter a GBMI plea, which would provide him with mental health treatment, should he be found mentally ill. The problem is that counsel was not aware of what a GBMI plea entailed and failed to ensure the process was completed. Velazquez was simply found guilty by the judge and sentenced to prison.

After going through his direct appeal, Velazquez filed a pro se postconviction relief action (“PCRA”), which he admitted was “inarticulately” drafted. In it, he claimed that but for counsel’s errors he would have been eligible for a GMBI plea and thus receive mental health treatment. From the start, however, the State responded by changing the basis of his claim, saying that he was seeking mental health treatment, which was not a cognizable claim for postconviction review. The court appointed PCRA counsel, who filed a letter of no merit and asked to be removed from the case. That was granted, and Velazquez was on his own again.

Every court and lawyer involved in Velazquez’s PCRA case adopted the State’s version of his claim, despite the fact that he filed a supplement clarifying that he was claiming that trial counsel deprived him of his right to a GBMI plea. Ignoring his actual claim, the PCRA court adopted the State’s version of his claim and denied relief. All his state appeals were denied, so Velazquez filed a federal habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, reasserting his claim. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania also construed his claim the same as the state courts had and ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to hear such a claim under federal habeas laws.

On appeal to the Third Circuit, Velazquez was granted a certificate of appealability (“COA”) and appointed counsel. This time, counsel shed light on the true nature of Velazquez’s claim, and the Court agreed to expand the COA to include his actual claim.

Under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 314(b), a defendant may enter a GBMI plea, and the trial court must hold a hearing “on the sole issue of the defendant’s mental illness at which either party may present evidence and is satisfied that the defendant was mentally ill at the time of the offense to which the plea is entered.” At the hearing, the judge determines on the evidence presented whether the defendant is mentally ill to enter a GBMI plea. Then the court proceeds to sentencing, which is not affected by a GBMI plea. Instead, the purpose of such a plea is to allow for mental health treatment during incarceration.

Velazquez agreed to enter a GBMI plea, and counsel was supposed to gather the medical records for the hearing. When counsel failed to do so, the court simply entered a guilty plea and sentenced Velazquez. No GBMI plea was entered. The Third Circuit said trial counsel erred in three ways: (1) he did not provide the medical records for the hearing, (2) he did not object to the trial judge sentencing Velazquez without the GBMI hearing, and (3) he did not challenge the non-GBMI guilty plea entered on the record.

But the question of first impression before the Court was whether Velazquez’s claim was cognizable for federal habeas review, and whether the Court even had jurisdiction to hear the claim. Federal habeas jurisdiction exists only if in granting the petition it would “change the fact, duration, or execution of the petitioner’s sentence,” the Court has held. This is based on the fact that § 2254(a) limits federal habeas relief to only “the ground that [the petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.”

A challenge to the validity of a guilty plea satisfies the jurisdictional requirements of federal habeas corpus relief. Properly construed, the Court concluded Velazquez was claiming that he suffered a “deprivation of the process [the GBMI statutes] provided him, which, in substance, means the opportunity for mental health treatment that the process facilitates.” His actual claim was one attacking the validity of his guilty plea, the Court said.

The Court also found that counsel’s errors deprived him of this opportunity and the process of the GBMI plea and subsequent treatment it would have provided him. Under Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52 (1985), the U.S. Supreme Court extended its ineffective assistance of counsel standard in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), to challenges to guilty pleas. The standard for those claims require a showing that the “outcome of the plea process” would have been different in order to show prejudice.

Since then, the Supreme Court has extended Strickland to include cases where the right to a proceeding was lost due to counsel’s errors and that no lesser outcome was necessary to show prejudice. The loss of the proceeding itself is the prejudice, the Supreme Court has held. Lee v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1958 (2017) (deprived of trial where advice to plead guilty guaranteed deportation); Garza v. Idaho, 139 S. Ct. 738 (2019) (deprived of right to appeal because of counsel’s errors, despite an appeal waiver).

Applying this broader protection of the right to certain proceedings announced by the Supreme Court, the Third Circuit in this case announced its own new rule: “Petitioners alleging ineffective assistance of counsel resulting in a deprivation of process need not show that the decision to undergo the process would have resulted in a more favorable outcome. Instead, they need only demonstrate a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s error(s), they would have made the decision – that is, chosen to exercise the right or take advantage of the opportunity of which they were deprived.”

Velazquez was deprived of his right to a GBMI hearing (and opportunity to have that plea accepted), which deprived him of mental health treatment. This was enough to satisfy the new rule, the Court concluded.

Accordingly, the Court remanded to the district court to grant his habeas petition and vacate his guilty plea. See: Velazquez v. Superintendent Fayette SCI, 937 F.3d 151 (3d Cir. 2019).

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Velazquez v. Superintendent Fayette SCI



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