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Little New At the Court of Appeals in the Way of Published Decisions

by | Mar 29, 2022 | The Virginia Appellate Lawyer’s Court of Appeals of Virginia Blog |

The Court of Appeals issued a published decision by order last week, and as it was an original jurisdiction matter, which is somewhat outside the purview of this Blawg, I thought I would wait a week to see if there was something more in the way of a published appellate decision to fill this space . . . but the Court issued no published decisions this week — original jurisdiction or otherwise.  So, rather than leave you, dear reader, bereft of any prose for a second week, I shall report on the aforementioned OJ order.

Steven Emanuel Parson v. Commonwealth of Virginia, as I mentioned, was an original jurisdiction matter decided by a published opinion.  The jurisdiction was actual innocence, which in the Court of Appeals means a claim that “I didn’t do it” based on “non-biological evidence.”  Cases based on DNA go to the Supreme Court.  When either court receives a petition asserting actual innocence, they court has three options: 1) Refuse the petition as insufficient to meet the standard required, 2) send the case to the original trial court for an evidentiary hearing, or 3) grant the petition (either based on the filed record or after an evidentiary hearing order under option 2).  In Parson the Court of Appeals opts for option 1.

The facts of the original case against Parson were fairly straight forward.  Parson’s girlfriend, who worked as an escort, was beaten up by one for her clients, Dejon Wagstaff. When Wagstaff contacted the woman for another “date,” Parson and Timothy Garrison intercepted Wagstaff and shot him to death.  Parson subsequently entered a guilty plea to charges of first degree murder and use of a firearm.  The evidenced proffered by the Commonwealth included forensic evidence and testimony of three disinterested witnesses.

Parson subsequently filed a habeas corpus petition contending that his trial counsel had not adequately reviewed the evidence before counseling Parson to accept the offered plea deal.  The petition was denied.

This brings us to the Writ of Actual Innocence petition.  Parson proffered an affidavit from Garrison purporting that he acted alone in the killing of Wagstaff and that he acted in self defense. As recounted in the affidavit, the killing of Wagstaff was nothing like the crime the Commonwealth’s proffer had made out in the plea hearing — and was in many points at odds with the eyewitness evidence.  It should be fairly obvious that this affidavit of a co-defendant was not going to be sufficient to establish that no reasonable trier of fact would be able to find that Parson was wrongfully convicted.

So, why did the Court of Appeals decide to publish the order dismissing Parson’s petition?  Well, it seems this is the first such petition that has been filed in a case where the petitioner pled guilty in the original proceeding.  The Court briefly discuss what impact the guilty plea (and its concomitant agreement that the defendant agrees that he committed the offense) should have on a subsequent claim of innocence.   Distinguishing In re Watford, a Supreme Court of Virginia case, the Court concludes that a trier of fact would have to give significant weight to guilty plea even though there may be reasons a defendant would enter such a plea that might not necessarily include his actual guilt.  It is, says the Court, one of the factors to be considered in determining the plausibility of the defendant’s claim of innocence.