The Arkansas State Supreme Court upheld a local lower-court ruling Thursday that rejected a convicted rapist's claim he had “ineffective counsel.”
Robert Sandrelli’s conviction on four counts of rape was affirmed in 2015 after two trials in 2013, one of which was declared a mistrial. The second trial resulted in Sandrelli being convicted. The rape victim was a teen, male family member.
Sandrelli filed a petition for post-conviction relief under Arkansas Rule of Criminal Procedure 37.1 claiming “ineffective counsel” because of his attorney being “under emotional and professional stress,” failure to call any character witnesses and “unilaterally” deciding that Sandrelli would not testify.
The Sebastian County Circuit Court had denied Sandrelli’s petition without holding a hearing. Sandrelli appealed to the circuit court, arguing he was entitled to a hearing on his claim.
“We affirmed in part and reversed and remanded in part,” the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling issued Thursday states. “We held that Sandrelli’s first claim was conclusory; therefore, he was not entitled to a hearing on it. But we remanded for a hearing on the last two claims.”
The state supreme court ruling goes on to explain the reason for remanding the case as a “control case” was due to it being deemed a hung jury in the first trial and then ending with a conviction in the second trial.
“The circuit court, based on the record alone, found that counsel and Sandrelli ‘must have agreed no witnesses would be called.’ This was speculative,” the state Supreme Court ruling states. “We held that the circuit court could not conclusively determine, without some evidence, that counsel’s decisions were supported by reasonable professional judgement. The circuit court should not guess the reasons behind the trial counsel’s decisions; rather the court should establish those reasons based on evidence presented at a hearing.”
Sandrelli testified at the remand hearing and said he intended to testify in the second trial but his attorney, Ray Spruell, never asked him to make a decision whether to testify. Spruell, however, said he was concerned about some inconsistencies with Sandrelli’s previous testimony in which he admitted to a domestic-battery charge against his son despite a video-recorded interview where he “adamantly” denied to the police that he had ever thrown his son across the room. Spruell told the court he told his client had the decision to testify, but he had recommended that Sandrelli not testify.
“I knew that Mr. Sandrelli didn’t like to testify in the first (trial). So, I explained to him that it was going to be rough on him the second time around and I didn’t think he would look good up there,” Spruell told the court when saying Sandrelli agreed that he should not testify.
The state supreme court decided to not reverse the denial of post-conviction relief based on the circuit court’s order that found that counsel’s decision to call no witnesses in the second trial “was a sound professional judgement by an experienced advocate and that it was reasonable.”
The state supreme court went on to reference Lemaster v. State, 2015 Ark. 167, 459, stating “a finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the appellate court, after reviewing the entire evidence, is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.”
Under the two-prong standard from Strickland v. Washington, the court adds, a petitioner seeking post-conviction relief must show that his counsel’s performance was deficient and that the deficient performance resulted in prejudice. With Feuget v. State, 2015 Ark. and several other cases in mind, the state supreme court, noted that “counsel’s performance was not deficient.”
The state supreme court also ruling affirmed the circuit court’s decision to credit Spruell’s testimony and conclude that the decision to call no character witnesses in the second trial was “based on reasonable professional judgement.”
And the state supreme court also affirmed the circuit court’s decision, to, as Sandrelli puts it in his petition, “not address the fact brought forth on the failure to Spruell to get on the record the decision of appellant to not testify.”
“We have held in an earlier case that the failure to make a record on the waiver of the right to testify does not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel,” the high court states. “In any event, the court credited Spruell’s testimony that Sandrelli agreed not to testify and found Sandrelli’s contrary testimony unbelievable.”