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Charlie Eakle v. Warden

March 18, 2011

CHARLIE EAKLE, PETITIONER
v.
WARDEN, ET AL., :: RESPONDENTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. John E. Jones III

MEMORANDUM

THE BACKGROUND OF THIS MEMORANDUM IS AS FOLLOWS:

Petitioner Charlie Eakle ("Petitioner" or "Eakle"), an inmate presently confined at the Graterford State Correctional Institution ("SCI Graterford") in Graterford, Pennsylvania, initiated the above action pro se by filing a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus ("Petition") under the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He challenges his 1998 conviction in the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County following his entry of a guilty plea. For the reasons set forth herein, the Petition will be denied.

I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A. Eakle's Arrest For Serial Molestation and His Competency Evaluation

This case arises out of a decade-long course of serial sexual abuse of a minor child by Eakle. In the summer of 1997, local police investigated allegations that Eakle had been sexually abusing his own step-child over an extended period of time. In the course of this investigation, police executed a search warrant at Eakle's home and interviewed Eakle, who made a series of guarded admissions to the authorities, apologizing for his mistreatment of this child (see Doc. 17-6, pp. 24-26, 57.) Police also consensually recorded a conversation with Eakle in which he made admissions regarding this offense. (Id., p. 58.)

Based upon this information, Eakle was arrested and taken into custody. Upon his arrest, Attorney David Cherundolo was appointed to represent Eakle. Because Attorney Cherundolo harbored inital concerns regarding Eakle' mental stability, he requested a competency evaluation of Eakle. The court granted this request, and Eakle underwent a competency evaluation in August and September of 1997. (Doc. 17-6, pp. 36-41.) That evaluation concluded that Eakle was competent to stand trial, and recommended that he be remanded him to the court for further criminal proceedings. (Id.)

B. Eakle's Guilty Plea and Sentence

Having been found competent to stand trial, on December 3, 1997, Eakle was charged in the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County with 30 counts of rape, 30 counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, 30 counts of sexual assault, 30 counts of aggravated sexual assault, 30 counts of corruption of minors, and 60 counts of indecent assault. These 210 charges arose from Eakle's alleged sexual abuse of his minor stepson over a ten year period spanning from January of 1987 to July of 1997. (Doc. 17-6, p. 24.)

On April 13, 1998, as his trial date approached, Eakle pleaded guilty to five of these 210 charges pursuant to the terms of a plea agreement. (Doc. 17-4, pp. 1-16.) Eakle's decision to plead guilty followed the release of discovery materials to the defense, which included police reports detailing admissions made by Eakle as well as a tape of a consensually recorded conversation with Eakle. ( Doc. 17-5, pp. 57-8.) At the time of this April 13, 1998 guilty plea proceeding, the trial judge engaged in a careful plea colloquy with Eakle outlining for him the penalties he faced upon entering his guilty plea, including a sentence to a term of imprisonment of up to 100 years. (Id., p. 4.) The court and counsel also engaged in a searching exchange with Eakle to ensure that he understood these proceedings, and was competent to enter guilty pleas to these charges. (Id., pp. 7-12.) In response to the court's questions, Eakle assured the trial judge that he was feeling well, understood the proceedings, confirmed that he had been found competent to stand trial, addressed his medication history in a cogent and fully-oriented fashion, and reassured the court that nothing was affecting his ability to understand these proceedings. (Id.) Eakle then pleaded guilty to these five counts of sexual abuse of his step-son. (Id.) On August 6, 1998, he was sentenced to twenty-five (25) years imprisonment on these guilty pleas, a sentence that fell within the range of possible penalties outlined by the court for Eakle at the time of his guilty plea. (Doc. 17-6, pp. 25-26.)

C. Post-Conviction Proceedings in State Court

In the wake of this guilty plea conviction and sentence, Eakle filed a series of three different post-conviction relief act petitions. (Id.) The third of these petitions, which forms the basis of the instant Petition, was filed by Eakle in October of 2002. (Id., p. 26.) In this petition Eakle challenged both his mental competence at the time of his April 13, 1998 guilty plea, and alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to recognize that he was not mentally competent to plead guilty. (Id.)

Counsel was appointed to represent Eakle in connection with the state post-conviction proceeding, and a hearing was held on his claims on February 9, 2005. (Doc. 17-5, pp. 1-68.) In the course of this evidentiary hearing, Eakle and his former trial counsel both testified. In his testimony, Eakle provided what he acknowledged was a contradictory set of sworn statements, repeatedly claiming that he had lied under oath at his guilty plea proceedings regarding the state of his mental competence. (Id., pp. 4-44.)

Eakle's trial counsel then testified, stating that Eakle's decision to plead guilty followed the release of discovery materials to the defense, which included statements made by Eakle to the police as well as a tape recording of Eakle. Defense counsel further testified that he had obtained a competency evaluation for Eakle prior to the entry of the guilty plea, and only proceeded with that plea after he was satisfied from this examination that Eakle was, in fact, mentally competent. (Id., pp. 44-68.) Counsel's assessment of Eakle's mental state was confirmed, in turn, by the results of the competency evaluation, which found Eakle competent to stand trial. (Doc. 17-6, pp. 36-41.)

Following this hearing, on April 5, 2006, the trial court entered a written opinion and order denying Eakle's state post-conviction relief act petition. (Doc. 17-6, pp.25-36.) In its April 5, 2006 opinion, the state court specifically found as a factual matter that the detailed, coherent, and cogent responses given by Eakle during his guilty plea, coupled with the competency assessment made as part of the court-ordered competence evaluation of the petitioner, confirmed that he was mentally competent at the time of his guilty plea. The trial judge similarly disposed of Eakle's complaints regarding the ineffectiveness of trial counsel, noting that counsel negotiated a favorable guilty plea for Eakle, undertook steps to ensure Eakle's mental competence at the outset of these proceedings, and effectively represented Eakle's interests throughout these proceedings. (Id.) The trial court also specifically considered, and rejected, a claim by Eakle that his counsel had promised him a two-to-four year sentence at a state mental hospital. (Id.) In rejecting this assertion, the trial judge simply found that Eakle's claims were not credible in light of counsel's specific and emphatic denial that he had made any such promises. (Id.)

D. Eakle's Appeal of the State Court Ruling Denying Him Post-Conviction Relief

Eakle appealed this decision to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which affirmed the denial of this post-conviction relief act petition in an opinion filed on November 14, 2006. (Doc. 17-8, pp. 1-12.) In its November 14 opinion, the Superior Court specifically rejected Eakle's claim that he lacked the competence to plead guilty, noting that this claim was rebutted by the court-ordered psychiatric evaluation of him, and by his own conduct at the time of his April 13, 1998 guilty plea. (Id.) The Superior Court also rejected Eakle's assertions that his counsel was ineffective, finding that he had failed to demonstrate ineffectiveness by his trial counsel. (Id.)

E. Eakle's Federal Habeas Petition

On May 1, 2007, Eakle filed the instant Petition. (Doc. 1.) Eakle raises two (2) claims, both of which have been thoroughly considered, and addressed, by the state courts. Specifically, he claims first, that he was not competent at the time of his guilty plea, and, second, that his ...


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