Wilkes v. State

Wilkes v. State, 2015 MT 243 (Aug. 18, 2015) (Wheat, J.; Rice, J., concurring; McKinnon, J., dissenting) (5-1, rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred by failing to adequately address Wilkes’s claims for postconviction relief; (2) whether the district court erred by denying Wilkes’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim; and (3) whether the district court abused its discretion by denying Wilkes’s petition before conducting a hearing.

Short Answer: (1) Yes; (2) yes; and (3) no.

Reversed and remanded

Facts: Wilkes’s three-month-old son, Gabriel, died Oct 26, 2008, following hemorrhaging in his head sustained on or before Oct. 4, 2008. According to Wilkes, he put Gabriel to sleep the evening of Oct. 4, 2008 after picking him up from a babysitter. A few minutes later, he discovered Gabriel had vomited and was limp. He attempted CPR, and unable to find his phone, took Gabriel to the babysitter’s nearby apartment. The babysitter called 911 while Wilkes continued CPR.

Gabriel was removed from life support on Oct. 21, 2008, and died five days later. The state charged Wilkes with deliberate homicide.

At trial the state argued Gabriel died from abusive head trauma (AHT, also known as shaken baby syndrome) caused by Wilkes. In support of its theory, the state provided evidence that the babysitter fed Gabriel a bottle of formula just before he left with Wilkes, and then provided expert testimony that Gabriel’s injuries were consistent with AHT, that symptoms are displayed almost immediately, and that Gabriel would not have been able to drink the bottle once he was suffering from AHT. Thus, the state argued, Wilkes must have caused Gabriel’s AHT and death.

Wilkes did not call any witnesses other than himself. He maintained his innocence, claiming he did not harm Gabriel. Wilkes’ lawyer left much of the state’s evidence unrefuted. Wilkes was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in MSP.

Wilkes filed a pro se petition for postconviction relief in July 2011, claiming he had received ineffective assistance of counsel. In March 2012, the Montana Innocence Project filed a notice of appearance, and filed an amended petition for PCR in September 2012. Wilkes provided the testimony of several experts and argued he should receive a new trial because of the ineffective assistance of his counsel and because he had discovered new evidence warranting a new trial.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court decided an evidentiary hearing was unnecessary, and denied Wilkes’s petition. Wilkes appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses. 

Reasoning: (1) The district court failed to specifically address Wilkes’s newly discovered evidence claim. The Court does not find this to be harmless error. Moreover, the Court’s recent decision in Marble establishes the standard to be applied in reviewing a PCR claim based on newly discovered evidence. The Court remands for consideration of Wilkes’s newly discovered evidence claim.

(2) The Court concludes that the district court erred in determining that Wilkes’s counsel’s actions were reasonable and did not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel, and reverses for reconsideration of Wilkes’s ineffective assistance claim in light of this opinion. Wilkes identified multiple experts whom Spencer could have called at trial who would have challenged the state’s diagnosis of AHT and presented alternate explanations for Gabriel’s death. The district court misapplied the law ad misapprehended the effect of Wilkes’s evidence.

(3) The decision to hold a hearing is left to the discretion of the district court, and the Supreme Court defers to the district court’s discretion on remand.

Justice Rice’s Concurrence: Justice Rice concurs with the decision to reverse and remand for application of the Marble standard.

Justice McKinnon’s Dissent: Justice McKinnon believes the district court adequately addressed Wilkes’s ineffective assistance claim, and his newly discovered evidence claim. Justice McKinnon would affirm.