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Order Upends Decades of Georgia Habeas Standard

(CN) - The divided Georgia Supreme Court overturned 43 years of precedent in finding that a convict bears the burden of proof when challenging that they were not informed when they entered plea bargains.

Its ruling comes in the appeal of Michael Lejeune, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to the gruesome murder and dismemberment of his friend over a $250 drug debt.

Lejeune's girlfriend testified that Lejeune beheaded the victim, burned the body, then put the head in a vise to try and remove the bullet, WSB-TV reported .

By pleading guilty, Lejeune avoided the death penalty. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

On appeal, Lejeune argued that his guilty plea was invalid because he was never informed that he had a constitutional right against self-incrimination, and believed he would be called to the stand to testify on his own behalf.

The habeas court found that the state carried its burden to show that Lejeune was aware of his rights, and upheld the plea.

But the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the ruling 4-3 last week, not because of any fault by the lower court, but because it said the Georgia Supreme Court itself had maintained a faulty evidentiary standard for habeas cases.

For the last 43 years, Georgia courts have required the state to bear the burden of proof in a convict's challenge to the validity of their plea.

But the court's majority said that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned this reasoning in 1992 in Parke v. Raley, when the court found that the presumption of regularity of court proceedings does not require the state to bear the burden of proving the voluntariness of a plea.

Georgia apparently still clung to its reasoning from the 1971 case Purvis v. Connell even after Parke, however, without adopting the new interpretation of federal law.

"Parke made clear that we had misread Boykin, and the U.S. Constitution does not, in fact, abrogate the presumption of regularity," Justice Keith Blackwell wrote for the majority, abbreviating the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case Boykin v. Alabama. "As a rule of federal constitutional law, the rule of Purvis and its progeny is simply wrong, and the dissent does not even attempt to argue otherwise."

The dissent argued that the court ought to follow precedent, which has not integrated Parke in numerous cases since 1992.

"Certainly, there may be compelling reasons to reexamine an earlier decision," Justice Keith Blackwell wrote for the dissent. "But, there is no such urgent need in this case; our original interpretation of the mandate of Boykin is nearly half a century old, and the fifteen-year-old controlling precedent confirming that decision has been imminently workable."

Blackwell said that was not an option, however, "because those precedents are based on a misunderstanding of federal constitutional law," over which the Georgia Supreme Court does not have the final say. (Emphasis in original.)

"To afford Lejeune a fair opportunity to carry [his] burden, and to permit the habeas court in the first instance to consider the evidence with a proper understanding of the burden, we vacate the decision of the habeas court, and we remand for a new evidentiary hearing consistent with this opinion," the judgment concludes.


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