Taylor v. State: Tread Carefully When Facing Charges in Multiple Counties

On June 19, 2013, the South Carolina Supreme decided the Post Conviction Relief (PCR) case of Taylor v. State and, in the process, approved a life without parole (LWOP) sentence for a man who would have been better served to resolve all of his charges in multiple counties at the same time.

Taylor had charges pending at the same time in both Georgetown and Williamsburg Counties. The same lawyer represented Taylor in both counties. Taylor resolved the Georgetown County charges first, pleading guilty to one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor and two counts of committing a lewd act on a minor. Taylor’s lawyer did not warn him that the guilty plea to criminal sexual conduct with a minor made Taylor eligible for LWOP under South Carolina’s harsh two-strikes law. After a Williamsburg County jury convicted Taylor of second-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor and lewd act, the judge sentenced him to LWOP.

This result is particularly troubling because two opportunities existed to avoid it through better criminal defense lawyering. First, even thought Taylor had the same lawyer in both counties, his lawyer “had not seen the discovery in the Williamsburg County case” when Taylor pled guilty in Georgetown County. Plus, Taylor’s lawyer “admitted that he did not advise” Taylor that the Georgetown guilty plea “could be used as a predicate offense that would expose him to a LWOP sentence on the Williamsburg County charges.” Had Taylor’s lawyer learned more about the Williamsburg case, then he could have negotiated a plea to all the charges at the same time, thereby avoiding the two-strikes consequences altogether. In fact, “[u]pon realizing his mistake,” Taylor’s lawyer negotiated with the Williamsburg Solicitor an “agreement under which the Solicitor would allow [Taylor] to plead to … lewd act with no sentencing recommendation by the State during the plea.” The lawyer was “confident” Taylor “would receive an identical and concurrent sentence to his sentence for the Georgetown County charges.”

This second opportunity to avoid the LWOP sentence never materialized because Taylor “was angry with plea counsel for failing to inform him of the consequences of the Georgetown County plea.” Taylor changed lawyers, and “new counsel never communicated with the Solicitor concerning the plea deal.” This second missed opportunity begs the question of whether Taylor’s second lawyer adequately advised him about the plea offer as required by the United States Supreme Court in Missouri v. Frye, 132 S.Ct. 1399 (2012) and Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S.Ct. 1376 (2012).

Our Supreme Court found that the Supreme Court of the United States opinion in Padilla v. Kentucky did not apply because the High Court held in Chaidez v. United States that Padilla is not retroactive. Even if Padilla was retroactive, our Court likely would not have applied that decision because “there is probative evidence in the Record before us that [Taylor] would not have chosen to proceed to trial on the Georgetown County charges had counsel told him about the strike.”

Legal analysis not withstanding, this LWOP sentence very likely would have been avoided by more diligent criminal defense representation and better attorney-client communication. Because Taylor was willing to plead guilty, negotiating a plea that resolved all the charges at once was in Taylor’s best interests. State v. Taylor underscores the importance of a healthy attoreny-cleint relationship where the client receives individualized attention.

The lesson to be learned: tread carefully when facing charges in multiple counties.

Click these links to read the Court opinions in Taylor v. State, Padilla v. Kentucky, Chaidez v. United States, Missouri v. Frye, and Lafler v. Cooper.

Preview: A blog post regarding a criminal defense lawyer’s obligations to advise the client about the collateral consequences of a guilty plea is planned for later this summer.