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Fields v. State

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Second Division

February 27, 2018

TAUSHA FIELDS, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Boone County The Honorable Christine Carpenter, Judge

          Before James E. Welsh, P.J., and Alok Ahuja and Anthony Rex Gabbert, JJ.

          ALOK AHUJA, JUDGE.

         In 2010, Appellant Tausha Fields was found guilty of murder in the first degree and armed criminal action following a jury trial. We affirmed Fields' convictions on direct appeal in 2012.

         Over four years later, Fields filed a motion seeking post-conviction relief. To justify the untimely filing of her motion, Fields alleged that, because she was experiencing difficulties with the prison mail system, her direct-appeal counsel offered to file her pro se post-conviction relief motion for her. She alleged that she forwarded her pro se motion to counsel for filing, but that the motion was not timely filed due to counsel's unexpected, debilitating medical issues.

         The circuit court dismissed Fields' motion as untimely without conducting an evidentiary hearing. Fields appeals. Because we conclude that Fields' motion adequately alleged that "active third-party interference" prevented the timely filing of her pro se post-conviction relief motion, we reverse, and remand for further proceedings.

         Factual Background

         In 2010, Fields was convicted following a jury trial of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the Circuit Court of Boone County. The court sentenced Fields to life without the possibility of parole for murder, and twenty years' imprisonment for armed criminal action. We affirmed Fields' convictions on direct appeal. State v. Morton, 384 S.W.3d 343 (Mo. App. W.D. Sept. 18, 2012) (mem.).[1]Our mandate issued on December 20, 2012.

         Under Supreme Court Rule 29.15(b), Fields' post-conviction motion was due 90 days after the issuance of our mandate, meaning that the deadline for filing her initial motion was March 20, 2013.

         Fields filed a Motion to Vacate, Set Aside and Correct Judgment and Sentence in the Circuit Court of Boone County on January 4, 2017, contending that she received ineffective assistance of trial counsel in multiple respects. Besides asserting claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, the January 2017 Motion also sought to justify Fields' failure to file a timely Rule 29.15 motion in 2013. Fields alleged that, "[d]uring the 90 days leading up to the deadline for the filing of the 29.15 Motion, " she was confined in administrative segregation at the Chillicothe Correctional Center. The Motion alleged that, while in administrative segregation, Fields "had been experiencing problems with regular mail, " although she "did not experience problems with her legal mail, sent to and received from her [direct-appeal] counsel." The Motion alleged that, "[a]s a result of [Fields'] difficulties with mail getting to its destination, prior to February 6, 2013, [Fields'] [direct-appeal] counsel agreed to file [Fields'] pro se 29.15 Motion prepared by [Fields] prior to the March 20, 2013 deadline." The Motion alleged that Fields mailed her pro se motion to her direct-appeal counsel prior to the March 20, 2013 deadline.

         Fields' Motion alleged that her direct-appeal counsel, who is quadriplegic, was scheduled for surgery on February 6, 2013. The Motion alleged that Fields' direct-appeal counsel "had no reason to believe that he would have additional health issues after the February 6, 2013 surgery leading to an extended medical absence from his office." The Motion alleged, however, that after counsel's February 6, 2013 surgery, "counsel unexpectedly was bed ridden for several weeks." The Motion also alleged that, "[a]s a result of [Fields'] [direct-appeal] counsel's physical incapacitation from his February 6, 2013 [surgery], he was unable to timely file [the] pro se 29.15 Motion prepared by [Fields] prior to the March 20, 2013 deadline." The Motion asserted that, because she was in administrative segregation, Fields did not have telephone access to call counsel, and therefore was unaware of the status of her pro se motion until after the March 20, 2013 deadline had passed.[2]

         Along with her Motion, Fields filed a Memorandum in Support of the Motion. In the Memorandum, Fields argued that her failure to timely file a pro se post-conviction relief motion was excused, because her case involved the "rare circumstance" in which "'an inmate writes his initial post-conviction motion and takes every step he reasonably can within the limitations of his confinement to see that the motion is filed on time, [but] the active interference of a third party beyond the inmate's control frustrates those efforts and renders the inmate's motion untimely.'" (Quoting Gunn v. State, 484 S.W.3d 106, 109 (Mo. App. W.D. 2015), in turn quoting Price v. State, 422 S.W.3d 292, 302 (Mo. banc 2014).)

         A week after the filing of Fields' Motion, and without receiving a response from the State, the circuit court entered an order stating that Fields' Motion was "dismissed ...


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