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Post-conviction motions clog bay area courts

LARGO — On March 21, a six-page document arrived at the Pinellas criminal courthouse from a state prison.

It was mailed by Todd VanLoan, imprisoned for violating probation on an attempted murder conviction.

The document was handwritten on notebook paper, but otherwise looked like a legal document. VanLoan used sophisticated legal terms and cited case law.

The appearance of validity ended there. VanLoan argued in the document that he is not bound by law and cannot be held in prison.

The judge's response: "The Defendant's argument, though novel, has no merit."

Such motions have surged in the Tampa Bay area over the past decade. The vast majority get the same response: dismissed. But they take up valuable time in a court system struggling with budget cuts.

In 2007, prison inmates convicted in Pinellas County filed nearly 2,200 post-conviction motions seeking new trials or reduced sentences, nearly double the motions filed in 2000.

In Hillsborough County, the circuit court in April 2006 became the only one in the state with a criminal division dedicated to dealing with post-conviction motions. The division inherited a backlog of nearly 400 motions and saw another 800 roll in last year.

Judges at the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland, which handles Tampa Bay area cases, also have seen criminal appeals double over the past decade.

Staff attorneys who assist the judges often have to read through files and court transcripts that can fill a shopping cart. They spend anywhere from a few hours to several weeks researching an inmate's claim and writing a response.

"We have to research the procedural history and whatever that encompasses," says Sherry McDonald, a senior staff attorney with the Pinellas-Pasco Judicial Circuit. "To pull the file, to look at the file, to get everything in order and that sort of thing … is going to take a significant amount of time."

Most motions filed with the trial court come from inmates, not lawyers, and usually by convicts who pleaded guilty. The inmates file the motions even though judges asked them multiple times whether they wanted to give up their right to a trial and accept a plea deal.

Many of the inmates claim their lawyers gave them poor advice or assistance.

"They will say 'I entered an uncounseled plea or my lawyer didn't tell me this or didn't tell me that,' " says Robert Morris, chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit. "It's become part of the routine."

Because it's not easy to win a new trial or resentencing — particularly after a plea — the vast majority of the motions are denied. In claims of ineffective counsel, for instance, inmates must show that their lawyers not only were poor, but that their performance affected the outcome of the case.

"It's a very high threshold because the defendants already had a trial or entered a plea," says B. Elaine New, counsel for the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

But judges and staff attorneys have to take each one seriously. Even motions that are scribbled nonsense have to be answered. In some cases, staff attorneys have to guess what the inmates are seeking.

"Oftentimes they won't cite a rule when they file and so we sort of have to … interpret it and figure out what they're asking for," McDonald says. "The vast majority of these people have no legal training.

"No matter what it is and what it looks like on its face, we research things thoroughly to make sure they do or don't have merit," McDonald says. "We want to make sure we're addressing every claim properly."

To understand why these appeals are taken seriously, look no further than the case of Jeffrey Sipple, 63, of Brooksville, who spent more than four years in prison for a manslaughter conviction.

From behind bars, Sipple filed handwritten appeals written with a blue ballpoint pen.

He lost most of them, but in December the 5th District Court of Appeal granted Sipple a new trial because his attorney failed to object to a jury instruction that "clearly prejudiced" his case.

Sipple contended he acted in self-defense when a gun fired during an argument with his girlfriend, who was shot three times. Today he is free after prosecutors offered him five years' probation to avoid another trial.

But in some cases, inmates will keep filing motions that are frivolous or repetitive. In those cases, judges will move to bar them from filing any more motions. The Florida Supreme Court recently barred a Pasco man who filed more than 20 post-conviction motions.

Post-conviction motions began to increase after appellate court decision in the late 1980s strengthened inmates' abilities to point the finger at their lawyers, Morris says.

Criminal penalties, including minimum mandatory sentences, also have gotten harsher over the years. Facing the idea of life or many years in prison without a chance of parole, some inmates figure they have nothing to lose by filing motion after motion.

Other court decisions — from not charging inmates for copies to allowing inmates a second chance at some denied motions — have also fueled the increase.

Circuit Judge Anthony Black, who oversees the Hillsborough division, says the rising number of post-conviction motions mirrors the increasing number of people being incarcerated.

"Somebody doing 30 to life in prison … they don't ever stop filing," says Black, whose division includes a public defender and three staff attorneys. "They have nothing else to do."

Because of a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires prisons to provide access to law libraries, the Florida Department of Corrections has 70 law libraries at its facilities. In 2006-07, prisoners visited those libraries more than 570,000 times.

The department also offers typing services and has trained about 350 inmates to help other inmates with post-conviction appeals.

Judges and staff attorneys try to respond to the post-conviction motions within a few months, but that's not always possible. And recent state-mandated budget cuts won't help.

In Pinellas County, for instance, the courts over the past decade added staff attorneys to deal with the spike in cases, but this year had to contend with a hiring freeze and staff reductions.

Budget cuts at the appeals court forced a 25 percent cut in staff members who handle, among other things, criminal appeals.

Though the increasing motions may be a burden, court officials and lawyers say they are a necessary right that the courts must be equipped to handle.

"It is part of their constitutional rights to challenge the events that led to their convictions," says Matthew Conigliaro, a lawyer at Carlton Fields in St. Petersburg who specializes in appellate practice. "And ultimately the court system needs to be able to process those cases, which includes having the funding to do that."

Staff writers Colleen Jenkins and John Frank contributed to this report.

Post-conviction motions clog bay area courts 06/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 11:51am]

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