JED R. MIDDLETON, Petitioner
STATE OF MAINE, Respondent
DECISION AND JUDGMENT
A. M. Horton, Justice, Superior Court.
This post-conviction review proceeding, brought pursuant to 15 M.R.S. § § 2121 et seq ., came before the court for an evidentiary hearing December 19, 2013. Petitioner Jed R. Middleton and his post-conviction counsel were present, as was the State's counsel. The hearing was recorded. Both parties filed memoranda after the hearing. Based on the entire record, the court hereby adopts the following findings of fact and conclusions of law, and renders judgment as set forth below.
In the underlying case, State v. Middleton , Me. Super. Ct., Sag. Cty. Docket No. BATSC-CR-10-023, the Petitioner was charged with gross sexual assault, a Class A offense, and multiple counts of unlawful sexual contact, a Class C offense. All of the offenses were alleged to have been committed on dates between 1993 and 1996 against the Petitioner's stepdaughter, Amee Cedergren (formerly Amee Suitter), who was born in 1985. Petitioner was married to Amee Suitter's mother, Linda Middleton, during the period when the offenses were alleged to have been committed.
Petitioner was represented in the underlying case by Donald Lawson-Stopps, Esq., a criminal defense attorney with substantial felony jury trial experience, and experience handling sexual assault cases. The State was represented by Assistant District Attorney Patricia Mador. After being retained to defend the Petitioner in May 2009, attorney Lawson-Stopps met repeatedly with the Petitioner, his sister, witnesses and others, and retained a private investigator to locate and interview potential witnesses. Attorney Lawson-Stopps's case file reflects multiple written communications with Petitioner, in addition to the oral communications between them. Attorney Lawson-Stopps testified that, although the Petitioner was upset and worried about the charges and the prospect of going to trial, he never felt the Petitioner was unable to understand what was happening or to assist in his defense.
As he prepared to defend the case, attorney Lawson-Stopps's theory gradually coalesced around the postulate that the alleged victim was fabricating her allegations in order to get back at the Petitioner for whatever reason, perhaps because Petitioner's marriage to her mother had ended in divorce.
Before trial, the State through ADA Mador made the Petitioner through attorney Lawson-Stopps a plea offer that, had it been accepted, would have resulted in the Petitioner being convicted of two of the Class C charges with consecutive sentences totaling nine years, with all but one year suspended, probation totaling eight years, and incarcerated for a year, and a lifetime sex offender registration requirement. Petitioner did not accept the plea offer. Why he did not accept it is a disputed issue of fact: at the post-conviction hearing, Petitioner testified that the State's plea offer had never been presented and explained to him, whereas his trial counsel testified otherwise.
Attorney Lawson-Stopps testified that, while he could not recall specifics about discussing the plea offer with the Petitioner, his practice as a defense attorney is always to review plea offers with his clients, and he did recall one detail--the Petitioner saying he would rather go to trial than accept a plea offer that would require him to register for life as a sex offender. In fact, this was always Petitioner's position, according to attorney Lawson-Stopps.
The charges went to trial before a jury over three days in June 2010. The Petitioner did not testify at trial. The jury found the Petitioner guilty of all 16 counts in the indictment. Sentencing was deferred to permit a forensic evaluation, in which the Petitioner cooperated, and the report for which was submitted to the court and counsel just prior to sentencing.
At sentencing, the Petitioner's sister and others spoke on his behalf, but the Petitioner himself did not speak. Attorney Lawson-Stopps said that Petitioner was not in any condition to give a coherent statement at sentencing. The court then sentenced Petitioner to 20 years in prison on the Class A conviction, with all but 11 years suspended, and six years' probation, with concurrent sentences on the Class C convictions. When the court asked Petitioner if he understood the sentence he had received, Petitioner said he did not understand anything the court had said, whereupon the court noted a concern about competency and took a recess in order to permit Petitioner to confer with his counsel. After the recess, attorney Lawson-Stopps advised the court that the Petitioner now understood and was ready to proceed.
After sentencing, Petitioner moved for a new trial based on alleged issues with a recording admitted into evidence at trial, which motion was denied. Petitioner's appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court was denied, as was his request to appeal his sentence.
The sole basis for the Petition is ineffective assistance of counsel. Petitioner relies on three specific grounds:
Alleged Failure to Disclose and Explain The State's Plea Offer: Petitioner asserts that his trial counsel failed to disclose and to explain to him the State's plea offer, an offer that, had it been accepted, would have been much more favorable than the sentence Petitioner ...