Plea can't be challenged with new evidence

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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In a case of first impression, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled a guilty plea can't be challenged in post-conviction proceedings by a claim of newly discovered evidence regarding the events making up the crime.

In Shawn E. Norris v. State of Indiana, No. 43S03-0807-CR-379, Shawn Norris appealed the post-conviction court's grant of the state's motion for summary disposition on Norris' petition for post-conviction relief. Norris pleaded guilty four years earlier to molesting his sister's child, served his sentence, and then later filed the petition for relief on grounds of newly discovered evidence. His sister, whose allegations resulted in the child molesting charges against Norris, recanted her story and said that because of Norris' limited mental capacity, she could convince him to say anything she wanted him to believe.

Norris believed these submissions from his sister entitled him to an evidentiary hearing on his petition for post-conviction relief. He wanted the court to set aside and vacate his conviction.

Here, Norris is seeking to undermine the sanctity of his own guilty plea by challenging the facts presented to the police that led to his arrest; he isn't contesting testimonial evidence at the trial that resulted in determination of guilt notwithstanding a not-guilty plea. Indiana's post-conviction procedures don't expressly address that distinction, wrote Justice Brent Dickson.

"It is inconsistent to allow defendants who pleaded guilty to use post-conviction proceedings to later revisit the integrity of their plea in light of alleged new evidence seeking to show that they were in fact not guilty. Both his confession and his new claims cannot be true," wrote the justice.

With the acceptance of his guilty plea, Norris waived the right to present evidence regarding guilt or innocence. A defendant can have recourse to post-conviction proceedings to seek to withdraw his guilty plea whenever the guilty plea wasn't knowingly and voluntarily made, but Norris isn't asserting that claim, wrote Justice Dickson.

Justices Theodore Boehm and Robert Rucker concurred in a separate opinion, agreeing Norris hadn't shown the post-conviction court erred in dismissing his petition, but the two justices don't agree that a guilty plea precludes a court from granting post-conviction relief on a claim of actual innocence. Justice Boehm gives the example of a defendant pleading guilty to a lesser charge in the face of highly persuasive but not conclusive evidence of guilt in a crime carrying a higher penalty.

"The interest of justice surely requires overturning a conviction of an innocent person," he wrote.

But, in the instant case, Norris didn't present evidence that meets the standards required by Post-Conviction Rule 1(a)(4), therefore there isn't enough to overcome the strong presumption that a guilty plea is in fact a truthful admission of guilt, he wrote.

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