The Georgia Supreme Court has reversed a lower court’s ruling and determined that a man’s guilty plea to drug charges more than 20 years ago was invalid because the trial judge did not make sure that he understood his right to have a lawyer present during his plea.
In 1988, Stacy Fullwood was 20 years old when he appeared in Crisp County Superior Court to respond to charges of violating the Georgia Controlled Substances Act, according to briefs filed in the case. Both the judge and prosecutor questioned Fullwood, a high school dropout who had no lawyer. The judge advised him that he had a number of rights, including the right to plead not guilty, the right to a jury trial and the right to a lawyer if he decided to go to trial.
On a standard waiver form, Fullwood pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and was sentenced under the Georgia First Offender Act to 10 years on probation.
Twenty years later, in June 2008, Fulton filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, a civil proceeding available to those who have already been convicted that allows them another opportunity to show that their conviction or sentence is unconstitutional. Fullwood alleged he had been denied his right to counsel at the plea hearing because he had not “voluntarily and knowingly” waived that right, making his conviction and sentence constitutionally invalid, according to a summary of the case.
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In January 2010, the local court denied his petition. The judge determined that Fullwood’s signature below a general waiver about one’s right to counsel proved Fullwood “voluntarily and knowingly” relinquished that right.
The Georgia Supreme Court disagreed, though.
“There is no question that the sentencing court never informed Fullwood in any fashion about his right to counsel during his plea,” wrote Justice P. Harris Hines.
“In order for a waiver to be knowing and voluntary, the court must inform the accused of ‘the nature of the charges against him, of his right to be counseled regarding his plea, and of the range of allowable punishments,’ ” said an opinion in the case issued Monday.
“The facts that Fullwood signed a generalized waiver form and was instructed that he had a right to counsel during a jury trial do not permit the conclusion that Fullwood made a knowing and voluntary waiver of counsel. Accordingly, it was error for the habeas court to conclude that Fullwood waived the right to be represented by counsel at the plea hearing.”