Court of Appeals rejects Sexton's petition

By Thomas Wilson

   The Tennessee Court of Appeals has turned down a petition by a former Carter County woman seeking post-conviction relief from her no-contest pleas for first-degree murder and aggravated robbery.
   The Court of Appeals ruled Donna Jean Sexton's pleas were valid and she was not prejudiced in making them regarding her time of incarceration despite "conflicting" explanations of her sentence made by her defense attorneys.
   The Appeals Court issued the ruling on Wednesday after hearing Sexton's petition in August 2003.
   Appeals Judge Joseph M. Tipton delivered the opinion of the court, in which Judges John Everett Williams and Alan E. Glenn joined. Sexton was convicted in the stabbing death of Angela Whitehead Montgomery at the Valley Forge Market on U.S. Highway 19E in June 1993.
   Pursuant to her plea agreement, the trial court sentenced Sexton to life with the possibility of parole for the murder and eight years for the aggravated robbery, to be served concurrently.
   Sexton -- who was 21 years old when the crime occurred -- is currently incarcerated at the Memphis facility of the Tennessee Prison for Women. Sexton's then-boyfriend William Matney Putman was charged with robbery and first-degree murder in the death of Montgomery on June 14, 1993. Sexton was with Putman when the crime occurred. The couple fled to Florida where they were both apprehended less than one week later.
   Putman pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in February 1995. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He is serving his sentence at the South Central Correctional Center in Clifton, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
   Sexton's petition argued that the post-conviction court erred by concluding that her amended, comprehensive petition was invalid because it was not properly verified under oath. Her petition also contended that she received ineffective assistance of counsel because her attorneys misinformed her as to the length of her sentence and her pleas were not knowingly and voluntarily made because the trial court never informed her that she was waiving her constitutional rights.
   At the post-conviction evidentiary hearing, Sexton testified that she signed a statement her attorney had prepared on her acceptance of the plea agreement, which stated that she would receive 30 years in prison when she pleaded no contest and that anything less would be determined at the discretion of the parole board. She testified she did not learn that her sentence was 60 years until she went to prison, and that, if she had known her sentence was 60 years, she would have gone to trial.
   Sexton originally filed a petition to set aside her pleas in 1996. Her petition requested a new trial alleging that her pleas were unlawfully induced without her understanding of the nature and consequences made by her defense attorneys -- Mark Slagle and Tom Jessee.
   In her plea statement entered in March 1995, Sexton is reported as saying, "My attorneys have informed me that a life sentence in Tennessee is served by serving 30 years in the Tennessee Department of Corrections." She alleged in her affidavit dated July 21, 1996 "advice of counsel was erroneous and contrary to the petitioner's best interest, thus denying her effective assistance of counsel."
   "It is now my understanding that the law applicable to my case was that a life sentence in Tennessee was a 60-year sentence. This was not explained to me by my lawyers," states Sexton in her affidavit petitioning her plea be set aside. The Court of Appeals refused to set aside the pleas in a ruling issued in September 2002.
   "Unquestionably, the advice the attorneys gave the petitioner was conflicting and somewhat incorrect," the court wrote. However, the court ruled that Sexton was not prejudiced by the advice she received.
   The Appeals Court noted that, at the post-conviction hearing, Sexton was confusing the length of the sentence with the length of actual confinement. The court wrote, "As for the amount of time the petitioner was expecting to serve in confinement, the trial court computed the actual confinement to be 25 years, within the range that the petitioner's counsel projected."
   The court also said that the trial court acknowledged that Sexton's attorneys provided her with conflicting parole eligibility information and that her original release eligibility date would have occurred after serving 60 percent of 60 years, roughly 36 years. Although Sexton's parole eligibility at the time of the hearing was set for 2028, her release eligibility would occur after serving 25 years if she obtained normal sentence reduction credits, the court wrote.
   The court further ruled that Sexton's signing of the "Acceptance of Plea Agreement" reflected that she understood that she was pleading no contest to felony murder. She did not testify at the post-conviction hearing regarding any lack of understanding that she had relative to her plea to aggravated robbery, according to the ruling.