A man who pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder in the beating and fiery mutilation of an Eastern Shore housemate has urged a federal appeals court to rescind his plea and 40-year prison sentence, saying he would have gone to trial had his attorney told him that any chance for early release would rest with the Maryland governor.
In papers recently filed, Paul Martin Hurst told the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that his trial attorney’s failure constituted ineffective assistance of counsel due to the historic reticence of Maryland governors to grant parole to those sentenced to “life in prison,” as he was, albeit with all but 40 years suspended under the plea agreement.
The attorney, Kelley McFadden, mistakenly believed the governor’s final say applied only to straight life terms and not those suspended to a defined number of years, Hurst stated through appellate counsel.
Hurst would have opted for a trial had he known the plea would essentially guarantee he would spend 40 years in prison with no real chance for parole beginning after 50% of his sentence, or 20 years, wrote Michael E. Lawlor.
“Appellant (Hurst) demonstrated that but for trial counsel misadvising him, and failing to correct the trial court’s misrepresentation about his parole eligibility, there is a reasonable probability that he would have pleaded not guilty and proceeded to trial,” added Lawlor, of Brennan, McKenna & Lawlor Chtd. in Greenbelt. “The consequence of this misadvice is enormous given the state of Maryland’s parole system for individuals serving life sentences, specifically, appellant’s understanding that gubernatorial approval for parole is essentially non-existent in Maryland.”
McFadden declined to comment Wednesday on her representation of Hurst or his appeal. McFadden is with McFadden Law LLC in Salisbury.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, in a responsive filing last week, said Hurst’s concern about Maryland governors might soon be rendered moot if the General Assembly overrides Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of legislation passed this year that would strip governors of the final say in parole decisions for lifers and leave that task to the state Parole Commission.
The measure, Senate Bill 202, passed by veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate and would apply to those currently serving life sentences, including Hurst, Frosh wrote in the filing cosigned by Assistant Maryland Attorney General Jer Welter.
The General Assembly reconvenes in January.
Hurst pleaded guilty in 2015 in Wicomico County Circuit Court to kicking, stomping and beating housemate Zach Swanson with a shovel and stick. Hurst then used a box cutter and knife in trying to cut a tattoo off Swanson’s arm before resorting to lighter fluid and a match in August 2014.
Swanson suffered third-degree burns, a broken nose and ribs, internal bleeding, and liver and spleen lacerations. His burned arm had to be amputated.
Carey Lee Edwards, another housemate who participated in the Hebron attack, also pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison with all but 30 years suspended. Edwards is not party to Hurst’s appeal.
U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang rejected Hurst’s federal court challenge to his plea agreement based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
Chuang said the U.S. Supreme Court has never held misinformation on parole eligibility as constituting ineffective assistance of counsel. Chuang added that “the evidence does not unequivocally establish that Hurst necessarily would have proceeded to trial had he been properly advised” in light of the strong evidence against him.
“(A) defendant facing likely conviction may rationally choose the benefits of a plea agreement, even one that is not entirely favorable, that offers a better resolution than would be likely after trial,” Chuang wrote in his memorandum opinion in March.
The 4th Circuit has not stated when it will rule on Hurst’s appeal of Chuang’s decision.
The case is docketed at the 4th Circuit as Paul Martin Hurst v. Walter West, No.21-6468.