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State v. Schowengerdt

Supreme Court of Montana

January 16, 2018

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
DENNIS LEO SCHOWENGERDT, Defendant and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: September 6, 2017

         Appeal from District Court of the Third Judicial District, In and For the County of Powell, Cause No. DC 12-55 Honorable Ray Dayton, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant, Chad Wright, Appellant Defender, Koan Mercer, Assistant Appellant Defender, Helena, Montana

          For Appellee Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Mardell Ployhar, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana, Lewis K. Smith, Powell County Attorney, Deer Lodge, Montana


         Justice James Jeremiah Shea delivered the Opinion of the Court.

         ¶1 This Court heard an initial appeal by Dennis Schowengerdt ("Schowengerdt"), after which we remanded to the Third Judicial District Court, Powell County, to further inquire into whether Schowengerdt's complaints regarding appointed counsel were seemingly substantial and necessitated a hearing to determine the validity of Schowengerdt's allegations and the need for substitution of counsel. The District Court conducted a hearing per our instructions and again denied Schowengerdt's request for substitution of counsel. Schowengerdt appeals this Order.

         ¶2 We address the following issues:

Issue One: Whether the District Court erred in ruling that Schowengerdt was not entitled to substitution of counsel.
Issue Two: Whether Schowengerdt was denied effective assistance of counsel.

         ¶3 We affirm.


         ¶4 The initial facts of the case are undisputed: On December 8, 2012, Schowengerdt killed his wife, Tina Schowengerdt, by repeatedly stabbing her in their home near Deer Lodge. The following morning, Schowengerdt drove to the police station in Deer Lodge and, in a recorded statement, told officers that last night he, "killed that son of a bitch [he] was living with. So arrest me, lock me up, I'm guilty, I killed her." On January 2, 2013, Steven Scott ("Scott") of the Office of the State Public Defender (OPD) was assigned as counsel for Schowengerdt. Scott commenced representation and filed several pleadings on behalf of his client.

         ¶5 On January 17, 2013, Scott filed a Notice that Schowengerdt might assert a defense of justifiable use of force. On April 2, 2013, immediately prior to a hearing on his motion to change venue, Schowengerdt decided to plead guilty to deliberate homicide. Schowengerdt signed an Acknowledgment of Waiver of Rights by Plea of Guilty and admitted that he "knowingly stabbed Tina Schowengerdt with a knife causing her death . . . [on] 12/08/12." The District Court proceeded through a detailed colloquy, during which Schowengerdt indicated that his plea was knowing and voluntary, that he was satisfied with Scott's services, and that he felt he could not "handle" a trial. The District Court accepted the guilty plea.

         ¶6 On June 12, 2013, Schowengerdt sent a letter to the District Court requesting new counsel. In the letter, he wrote: "I am Requesting a Withdraw [sic] as My Attorney at this time Mr Steve Scott; I AM Requesting For proper Reputation [sic] in My case." Two days later, Scott filed a motion to withdraw Schowengerdt's guilty plea, explaining in the supporting brief: "Mr. Schowengerdt . . . stated he wants to withdraw his plea of guilty and proceed onto trial in this case. Mr. Schowengerdt indicated he made a mistake when he entered into the plea and now wishes to withdraw his plea and proceed to trial." Scott added that he felt it was his "duty as a licensed attorney in Montana to point out to the Court there is not any case law in Montana to support Mr. Schowengerdt's position as to the withdraw[al] of plea." After reviewing Schowengerdt's letter, the District Court ordered Scott to submit a memorandum explaining his position regarding continued representation of Schowengerdt. Scott responded, stating that he had "no problem with continuing to represent [Schowengerdt], " and that he did not feel there had been a breakdown of the attorney-client relationship.

         ¶7 On July 2, 2013, the District Court held a hearing to address Schowengerdt's letter requesting a change in representation. As Schowengerdt was about to explain his dissatisfaction with his assigned counsel, the District Court interrupted him and Schowengerdt was not provided the chance to speak to the issue. Instead, the District Court directed Schowengerdt to follow the OPD's process for obtaining substitute counsel.

         ¶8 On August 27, 2013, the District Court held a hearing on Schowengerdt's Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea, at which the District Court inquired whether the representation issue had been resolved. Scott explained that OPD denied Schowengerdt's request for new counsel and that Schowengerdt had not appealed the decision pursuant to OPD's administrative policies. The District Court deemed the representation matter resolved and moved on to Schowengerdt's Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea.

         ¶9 Regarding the Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea, Scott reiterated what he had previously submitted to the District Court, stating: "[Schowengerdt] did not have a basis to give me as to why he felt his plea should be withdrawn . . . ." The District Court invited Schowengerdt to speak, and Schowengerdt stated that he felt unprepared to address his withdrawal of plea but stated, "I don't think I'm guilty. . . . I know what the outcome was, but I think I was fighting for my life." The District Court then denied the Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea and concluded that Schowengerdt had not "in any way asserted his plea of guilty was involuntary and there is no basis in the record to conclude [his] guilty plea was involuntary." The District Court denied Schowengerdt's motion to withdraw his guilty plea and sentenced him to life in the Montana State Prison.

         ¶10 Schowengerdt appealed, arguing that Scott failed to provide effective assistance of counsel and that the District Court failed to adequately inquire into Schowengerdt's complaints of ineffective assistance. We agreed that the District Court failed to adequately inquire into Schowengerdt's complaints regarding his counsel which necessitated a remand for further ...

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