State v. Taylor, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Jun. 5, 2020)

In 2011 the defendant was charged with first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon for his participation in a murder allegedly committed by Taurus Locklear and Shawn Jones. A plea agreement allowed the defendant to plead guilty to second-degree murder and other crimes in exchange for his cooperation in the pending prosecutions of Locklear and Jones. The trial court accepted the guilty plea in 2014, but deferred sentencing pending the resolution of the case against Locklear. However, in 2015 the State dismissed the charges against Locklear due to issues with the witnesses and evidence against him. At that point, the defendant moved with withdraw his guilty plea. At an evidentiary hearing in April 2016 two officers gave inconsistent accounts of the defendant’s statements during their investigation of the case. At a subsequent hearing in June 2016, the defendant’s lawyer testified that, in light of his own failure to examine the discrepancies between the officers’ accounts, he gave ineffective assistance in the plea agreement process, and that the defendant should therefore be entitled to withdraw his plea. The trial judge denied the motion and entered judgment. The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals considered whether the defendant had shown “any fair and just reason” for withdrawing the plea—the proper standard for evaluating a motion filed prior to sentencing. Applying the factors spelled out by the Supreme Court in State v. Handy, 326 N.C. 532 (1990), the Court of Appeals concluded over a dissent that the trial court did not err by denying the motion. The defendant appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, concluding that the defendant failed to show any fair and just reason for withdrawing the guilty plea. The Court examined each of the Handy factors in turn. As to the first factor, whether the defendant asserted his legal innocence, the Court concluded that the fact that the defendant’s guilty plea was not a no contest or Alford plea weighed against allowing him to withdraw it. As to the second factor, the strength of the State’s proffer of evidence, the Court noted that the factual basis for the plea presented by the State was “essentially uncontested” and therefore sufficient. As to the third factor, the length of time between entry of the guilty plea and the desire to change it, the Court concluded that the 18-month delay in this case did not favor allowing the defendant to withdraw the plea. As to the fourth factor, the competency of counsel, the Court agreed that the factor was inconclusive. Taking all of the factors into consideration, the Court ultimately agreed with the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that the defendant failed to show “any fair and just reason” to withdraw the guilty plea. The Court dismissed the defendant’s related ineffective assistance of counsel claim without prejudice to his right to file it as a motion for appropriate relief.