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Jones v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

October 30, 2019

Rufus B. Jones, Appellant,
State of Florida, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Leon County. James C. Hankinson, Judge.

          Michael Ufferman of the Michael Ufferman Law Firm, P.A., Tallahassee, for Appellant.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, and Steven Edward Woods, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, for Appellee.

          M.K. Thomas, J.

         Rufus Jones appeals the denial of his motion for postconviction relief after an evidentiary hearing. He argues the postconviction court erred by failing to find ineffective assistance of trial counsel for improperly advising him regarding the State's plea offer.[*] We disagree and affirm the denial of Appellant's postconviction motion.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         Following a jury trial, Jones was found guilty of attempted second-degree murder and received the minimum mandatory sentence of twenty years imprisonment. This Court affirmed the judgment and sentence. See Jones v. State, 107 So.3d 563 (Fla. 1st DCA 2013). Thereafter, Jones timely filed a motion for postconviction relief pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850, arguing his lead trial counsel, Attorney Handfield, rendered ineffective assistance in advising him to decline a favorable plea offer from the State. The postconviction court held an evidentiary hearing on his claims.

         Jones was represented by Attorney Handfield, lead counsel at trial, and Attorney Akbar, a local attorney acting as second chair. It is undisputed that prior to trial the State submitted a five-year plea offer, which was renewed on the day of trial.

         At the postconviction evidentiary hearing, Jones claimed Attorney Handfield advised him not to accept the plea offer because he believed the victim's testimony would be favorable to Jones' defense, and he was confident he would win at trial. However, Jones could not recall whether Attorney Handfield advised if he had spoken with or deposed the victim. Jones claims that had he known the victim's testimony would not be favorable to him at trial, he would have accepted the plea offer.

         Attorney Akbar, defense co-counsel, confirmed that Jones was offered a five-year plea deal, which he conveyed to Jones. He was not present when Attorney Handfield discussed the plea offer with Jones. According to Attorney Akbar, Attorney Handfield told Jones' family not to take the plea as he had a strong case for trial. Attorney Akbar indicated Jones relied heavily on what his family thought and suggested. Attorney Akbar also recalled Attorney Handfield advising the family that the victim's testimony would be favorable to the defense. However, in his opinion it was not. Attorney Akbar testified that he encouraged both Jones and his family to take the plea offer, as Jones was facing a maximum sentence of life with a minimum mandatory of twenty years. Regardless, Jones declined the offer.

         Attorney Handfield, lead defense counsel, testified the victim was not a cooperative witness. But, at trial, he was able to elicit testimony from the victim that he was a convicted murderer, did not see who shot him, did not want the case prosecuted, had been stalking Jones' mother, and had threatened to take her life. Attorney Handfield believed the five-year plea offer was reasonable under the circumstances, but Jones declined to accept. He claimed that when he spoke with Jones' family, he explained the offer was reasonable. He denied instructing Jones to reject the plea offer, but instead recommended to Jones that he accept it. Attorney Handfield agreed that he believed there was a good chance of winning at trial but claimed he never guarantees a victory and did not do so in this case. According to Attorney Handfield, Jones' family was encouraging him not to accept the plea agreement. He could not recall whether he or Attorney Akbar took the victim's deposition and claimed he was not relying on the victim's testimony to make his case.

         The prosecutor in the case testified he discussed the plea offer with Attorney Akbar and both agreed Jones should have taken the plea offer. However, he recalled that Attorney Handfield was "in charge" of the defense. According to the prosecutor, both defense attorneys discussed the plea offer with Jones, but he did not wish to accept.

         At the conclusion of the evidentiary hearing, the postconviction judge orally announced his ruling. Regarding the legal advice ...

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