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Meiners v. State

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

January 23, 2018

KEITH MEINERS, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent.

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF ST. LOUIS COUNTY The Honorable Colleen Dolan, Judge

          Mary R. Russell, Judge

         Keith Meiners ("Meiners") appeals the motion court's overruling of his Rule 29.15 motion for postconviction relief. Meiners was convicted of second-degree murder for the death of James Willman ("Victim"). At trial, Meiners requested the jury also be instructed on both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. The trial court rejected both instructions, and, on direct appeal, appellate counsel did not raise these refused instructions as points of error. In his Rule 29.15 motion, Meiners argued his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise these issues. The motion court denied postconviction relief, finding his appellate counsel was not ineffective. Because appellate counsel did not fail to exercise the customary level of skill and diligence of a reasonably competent attorney, her performance was not constitutionally deficient. The motion court's judgment is affirmed.

         Background

         A jury convicted Meiners of second-degree murder for the death of James Willman ("Victim"). The evidence adduced at trial demonstrated on the night of the murder, Meiners invited Victim and a number of other individuals over to his home to drink. Also in attendance was Justice Brickey ("Witness"), who was present at the scene of the crime and became one of the State's key witnesses. Meiners and Victim were not strangers, as Victim had previously been romantically involved with Meiners's then-girlfriend.

         After some time, Meiners, Victim, and Witness left to go to a second party in Victim's car. As Victim drove the other two men from the party, Witness asked Victim to pull the car over because he was feeling nauseous. After the car stopped, Witness saw Meiners, who had been sitting behind Victim in the backseat, strangling Victim with duct tape. Witness testified Meiners then pulled Victim out of the driver's seat and onto the road. According to Meiners, Victim then pulled a switchblade on Meiners and attempted to stab him, but Meiners knocked the knife away. Meiners, continuing his attack, stood over Victim and punched him repeatedly as Victim screamed for him to stop. Witness briefly attempted to pull Meiners off of Victim but was unsuccessful; Witness described Meiners as "out of control" and "filled with rage." When Meiners finally stopped punching Victim, he was no longer moving.

         Meiners and Witness dragged Victim to the side of the road. Witness saw Meiners standing on Victim's chest and neck. Additional trial testimony demonstrated Meiners told another witness he stood on Victim's neck until he could no longer feel a pulse.

         Meiners admitted to killing Victim at trial. The jury was instructed on both first-and second-degree murder. Meiners's attorney asked the court for additional instructions on voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. The trial court rejected both instructions, and the jury found Meiners guilty of second-degree murder. Meiners's motion for new trial, which argued the trial court erred by not submitting these instructions, was overruled.

         On direct appeal, appellate counsel did not raise either refused instruction. In his amended Rule 29.15 motion for postconviction relief, Meiners argued appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise these points of error on appeal because, according to Meiners, there was evidentiary support for both instructions. At the evidentiary hearing, appellate counsel testified she had flagged both refused instructions as potential issues to raise on appeal but ultimately concluded there was insufficient evidence of sudden passion to argue the jury should have been instructed on voluntary manslaughter. She did acknowledge, however, that a person pulling a knife on another could cause sudden passion. As to the refused involuntary manslaughter instruction, appellate counsel stated she did not believe the evidence adduced at trial fit any scenario in which recklessness could be found, and it was for this reason she did not raise the issue on appeal.

         The motion court denied postconviction relief, finding that Meiners's counsel on appeal had performed competently. It determined the record demonstrated no evidence of sudden passion, rejecting each of Meiners's arguments. The motion court held Meiners's knowledge of his girlfriend's relationship with Victim would not cause sudden passion due to the attenuated connection between this knowledge and Meiners's attack; further, the motion court rejected Meiners's contention that sudden passion arose after Victim attacked Meiners with a knife because sudden passion is not an applicable defense when the defendant is the initial aggressor. Due to the lack of evidence, the motion court determined appellate counsel was not ineffective in declining to raise this issue on appeal.

         Similarly, the motion court held appellate counsel was not ineffective for failing to raise on appeal the trial court's refusal to instruct on involuntary manslaughter. Because the evidence demonstrated Meiners repeatedly kicked, punched, and strangled Victim before dragging him to a field to die, the motion court found appellate counsel was not ineffective for declining to raise the refused instruction as error on appeal.

         Meiners argues the motion court clearly erred in overruling his Rule 29.15 motion for postconviction relief because appellate counsel was allegedly ineffective for failing to raise the refused instructions on appeal.

         Standard of Review

         This Court reviews a motion court's judgment denying postconviction relief to determine whether its findings and conclusions are clearly erroneous. Rule 29.15(k); Mallow v. State, 439 S.W.3d 764, 768 (Mo. banc 2014). A judgment is clearly erroneous only if this Court is "left with a definite and firm impression that a mistake has been made." Id. The movant has the burden of proving all allegations by a preponderance of the evidence. Id.

          To be entitled to postconviction relief based on ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, the movant must satisfy the two-prong test set out in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). To meet this test, the movant must first establish that appellate counsel's performance was deficient. Id. at 687. This requires a showing that the attorney "failed to exercise the level of skill and diligence that a reasonably competent counsel would in a similar situation." McIntosh v. State, 413 S.W.3d 320, 324 (Mo. banc 2013). The error overlooked on appeal must have been "so obvious that a competent and effective lawyer would have recognized and asserted it." Williams v. State, 168 S.W.3d 433, 444 (Mo. banc 2005). In evaluating an attorney's performance, this Court must "eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight … [and] evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. In addition to showing counsel's performance was deficient, the movant must also demonstrate the deficient performance resulted in prejudice to his defense. Id. at 687. Prejudice occurs when "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694.

         Analysis

         Meiners argues his counsel was ineffective for failing to raise voluntary and involuntary manslaughter instructions on direct appeal because any attorney exercising customary skill and diligence would have done so. The motion court denied these claims after finding neither rejected jury instruction was supported by the evidence presented at trial.

         I. Instructing on Lesser-Included Offenses

         A trial court must instruct the jury on a lesser-included offense when there is a basis in the evidence for acquitting the defendant of the higher offense and convicting the defendant of the lower offense. Sec. 556.046.[1] Meiners argues there was clearly a basis in the evidence for acquittal for first-degree murder because the jury did indeed acquit him of that offense. In addition, he asserts there are bases in the evidence for convictions of either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, which are lesser-included offenses of first-degree murder. Sec. 565.029.

         II. The Refused Voluntary Manslaughter Instruction

         Meiners argues his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise on appeal the rejected voluntary manslaughter instruction because there was a basis in the evidence to convict him or her of that lesser offense. A person is guilty of voluntary manslaughter if he or she "[c]auses the death of another person … [while] under the influence of sudden passion arising from adequate cause." Sec. 565.023. Sudden passion arises out of "provocation by the victim or another acting with the victim which … arises at the time of the offense and is not solely the result of former provocation." Sec. 565.002(15) (RSMo 2014). Adequate cause is of a type "that would reasonably produce a degree of passion in a person of ordinary temperament sufficient to substantially impair an ordinary person's capacity for self-control." Sec. 565.002(1).

          To support his claim of sudden passion, Meiners points to evidence that his girlfriend had dated Victim previously, he had gotten into an argument with Victim during their drive, and Victim pulled a knife on Meiners in his attack, during which Witness described Meiners as "filled with rage" and "out of control." Because this evidence fails to provide a sufficient evidentiary basis for finding sudden passion, the motion court did not err in overruling Meiners's Rule 29.15 motion.

         Sudden passion must arise at the time of the offense and there must not have been a cooling-off period. State v. Redmond, 937 S.W.2d 205, 208 (Mo. banc 1996). Meiners had been aware of his girlfriend's romantic history with Victim for some time prior to the crime. He was aware of the relationship when he invited Victim to his home to socialize and when he attended a second party with Victim. Meiners cannot argue this past relationship was a legitimate source of sudden passion when he had an ...


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