Confessed convict denied trial

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Lewisburg man who pled guilty in two cases and was sentenced in November was back in Circuit Court last week, seeking post-conviction relief.

Robert Jason Burgess, 36, formerly of East Commerce Street, unsuccessfully tried to persuade Judge Robert Crigler that he should have a jury trial because he had not been well represented by his lawyers and because he had been forced into a guilty plea.

Burgess had been represented by John H. Norton III of Shelbyville on rape charges and by Michael Collins and Bill Harold of the Public Defender's Office on drug charges. Burgess wrote to Crigler complaining about all his lawyers, and local attorney Terry Hernando was appointed to represent him at the post-conviction hearing.

Burgess testified that all along he wanted a jury trial, and told his lawyers so, but "they didn't want me to go to trial."

Burgess claimed his lawyers never contacted witnesses who would have helped his case, and said Norton "talked to me like a dog."

Burgess' defense attorneys contend that he did not seem to understand the strength of the evidence against him, which led them to recommend guilty pleas.

The case on the drug charges was a strong one, testified Agent Tim Miller, assistant director of the 17th Judicial District Drug Task Force. Miller himself, acting under cover, made two buys of Lortabs from Burgess, and had tape recordings of both deals. Miller testified under oath that Burgess had put the pills in his hand.

The case on the sex charges, which included eight counts of rape was equally strong.

The written statement provided by Burgess after he was arrested on the sex charges amounted to a confession, Assistant District Attorney Eddie Barnard told the court.

"You confessed to everything the state charged you with," Barnard pointed out. "How are you going to take it to trial with a confession?"

The transcript of the plea hearing, with Crigler's questions and Burgess' answers was read out loud, including Crigler's question: "Do you have any complaints about the way your lawyers have represented you?" and Burgess' answer: "No."

"Was that a lie?" asked Barnard.

"Yes, sir," Burgess admitted. "I lied to the judge because I had given up."

"Why did you sign this (plea) document?" asked Hernando.

"I was pressured," Burgess replied. "They finally wore me down. They didn't want to listen to me and I pretty much gave up."

All three lawyers agreed they had spent about 45 minutes persuading Burgess to make the plea, but, as Norton said, "It was not a pressure situation."

Collins testified that Burgess got a "sweetheart deal - the kind you're surprised you get worked out," and added "Norton did it." The deal was 20 years at 100 percent on two of the rape counts, and six years at 30 percent on two of the drug charges. Testimony revealed that the prosecution's original plea offer had been for a sentence of 40 years.

The maximum sentence, if Burgess had gone to trial and been found guilty of all of the sex charges, could have been close to 100 years.

Barnard called Norton "one of the best lawyers that ever hit the State of Ten-nessee" and called him to the witness stand.

"I was ready to try his case," Norton said.

"But he wouldn't have been happy with the results. What do you think 12 people in Marshall County would do when they found out what he did to his victim? We'd be lucky if we weren't both hanging from those trees out there."

At the conclusion of the hearing, Crigler dismissed Burgess' petition.

"You failed to prove ineffective assistance of counsel," the judge told Burgess. "And you failed to prove that your guilty plea was not free or voluntary. In fact, you admitted to perjury."

After the hearing, Burgess was taken back to prison.