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Woods v. Kirkegard

Supreme Court of Montana

February 14, 2017

LEROY KIRKEGARD, Warden, Montana State Prison, Respondent.


         Following the Third Judicial District Court's denial of a similar habeas corpus petition, Jeremy Cord Woods petitions this Court pro se for habeas corpus relief from his 1995 deliberate homicide convictions on the asserted ground that the First Judicial District Court, Lewis and Clark County, erred in not holding a separate death penalty sentencing phase hearing pursuant to § 46-18-301(1), MCA. Woods includes several copies of pertinent documents, including the First Judicial District Court docket for his underlying criminal conviction; his 1996 sentencing order and judgment; his 2016 Third Judicial District Court habeas corpus petition; the State's response; Woods's reply; and the December 29, 2016 Third Judicial District Court's order denying his petition for writ of habeas corpus.

         In 1995, after a two-day trial, the jury found Woods guilty of two counts of deliberate homicide. The District Court imposed two, consecutive life sentences with a sixty-year parole eligibility restriction. On direct appeal, Woods raised two issues for review: (1) whether the court erred in denying his pretrial motion to suppress evidence of his confession, and (2) whether the court erred in allowing him to proceed at trial pro se. State v. Woods, No. 96-192, 283 Mont. 359, 363, 942 P.2d 88, 91 (1997). We affirmed. Woods, 283 Mont, at 363, 378, 942 P.2d at 91, 100.

         The death penalty statutes are found in §§ 46-18-301 through 46-18-310, MCA. Woods committed his offenses in June 1993. Section 46-18-301(1), MCA (1993), provided:

When a defendant is found guilty of or pleads guilty to an offense for which the sentence of death may be imposed, the judge who presided at the trial or before whom the guilty plea was entered shall conduct a separate sentencing hearing to determine the existence or nonexistence of the circumstances set forth in 46-18-303 and 46-18-304 for the purpose of determining the sentence to be imposed. The hearing shall be conducted before the court alone.

         Section 45-5-102(2), MCA (1993), provided that "[a] person convicted of the offense of deliberate homicide shall be punished by death as provided in 46-18-301 through 46-18-310, by life imprisonment, or by imprisonment in the state prison for a term of not less than 10 years or more than 100 years, except as provided in 46-18-222."

         From his review of § 46-18-301, MCA, Woods contends that the District Court erred because § 45-5-102(2), MCA (1993), made the death penalty a possibility upon his convictions for deliberate homicide. Accordingly, because the court did not hold a separate death penalty sentencing phase hearing, he asserts that his resulting sentence was invalid due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction. As a related matter of due process, he also interprets the statutory language of "shair to impart a liberty interest in this hearing by analogy to Board of Pardons v. Allen, 482 U.S. 369, 377-78, 107 S.Ct. 2415, 2420 (1987) (mandatory "shall" language in Montana parole statute created a presumption of entitlement to parole on on designated findings). He requests that this Court grant his habeas corpus petition and remand this matter to the First Judicial District Court for resentencing.

         Woods's petition fails to state a claim for habeas corpus relief as a matter of law on the face of his petition and supporting documents. As a threshold matter, a "petition for a writ of habeas corpus is not available to attack the validity of a conviction of a person who has been adjudged guilty of an offense in a court of record, " has "exhausted his remedy of appeal, " and failed to timely raise an appealable issue on direct appeal. See § 46-22-101(2), MCA; Lott v. State, 2006 MT 279, fflf 18-19, 334 Mont. 270, 150 P.3d 337. In this case, Woods had the opportunity to raise this alleged error on direct appeal but failed to do so. Thus, § 46-22-101(2), MCA, procedurally bars him from raising it here.

         Though Mont. Const, art. II, § 19, still more broadly guarantees the availability of the habeas corpus relief under certain extraordinary circumstances, Woods's substantive assertions of error are facially insufficient to warrant such extraordinary relief here. See Lott, fflj 19-23 (availability of otherwise untimely habeas corpus relief to remedy sentence rendered facially invalid by case law decided after expiration of appeal and postconviction deadlines). Subject matter jurisdiction is a function of "Montana's specific constitutional and statutory provisions [which] define a district court's jurisdiction and provide for commencing a state prosecution." State v. Montgomery, 2015 MT 151, H 9, 379 Mont. 353, 350 P.3d 77. See also Mont. Const, art II, § 20(1); art VII, § 4(1); § 46-2-101, MCA. As a matter of law, imposition of a statutorily invalid sentence does not destroy or eliminate a court's independently grounded jurisdiction over the subject matter.

         Woods similarly misconstrues the death penalty statutes and misapplies Allen. Though Woods correctly recognizes that, at the time of initial charging, he was potentially subject to the death penalty pursuant to § 45-5-102(2), MCA (1993), he was no longer subject to the death penalty at the time of trial because the State did not timely file a notice of intent to seek the death penalty pursuant to a court-imposed order, and the case thus did not proceed to trial as a death penalty case. Consequently, as a matter of fact beyond dispute on his petition and supporting documents, Woods was not "found guilty of... an offense for which the sentence of death may be imposed" within the meaning of § 46-18-301(1), MCA (1993). By its express terms, § 46-18-301, MCA, did not apply to Woods's sentencing.

         Though it recognized that mandatory language of statutory entitlement may create a protected liberty interest, the Allen analysis has no application where, as here, the source statute does not apply as a matter of law. Unlike in Allen, the mandatory death penalty sentencing phase statute at issue here, § 46-18-301(1), MCA (1993), did not apply to his conviction and resulting sentence because he was no longer subject to the death penalty at the time of conviction and sentencing. Thus, contrary to Woods's assertion, Allen is distinguishable and inapplicable here. Woods had no liberty interest in a separate penalty sentencing phase hearing under § 46-18-301(1), MCA (1993), in this case.

         Having considered Woods's petition and supporting documents, we determine that the petition is procedurally barred by § 46-22-101(2), MCA, and is substantively insufficient to warrant extraordinary habeas relief to remedy a "grievous wrong'" or "miscarriage of justice" as in Lott. Accordingly, IT IS ORDERED that Woods's petition for a writ of habeas corpus is DENIED.

         The Clerk is directed to provide a copy of this Order to counsel of record, ...

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