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State of Minnesota vs. Jamil Joshua Eason
Case Number: A16-1647
Judge: David L. Lillehaug
Court: STATE OF MINNESOTA IN SUPREME COURT
Plaintiff's Attorney: Lori Swanson, Attorney General
Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Brittany D. Lawonn, Assistant County Attorney
Defendant's Attorney: Bradford Colbert, Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners
Description: In 2012, the State charged Jamil Joshua Eason with first-degree felony murder,
Minn. Stat. § 609.185(a)(3) (2016); and second-degree intentional murder, Minn. Stat.
§ 609.19, subd. 1 (2016). The parties exchanged several plea offers before trial, but failed
to reach an agreement.
At trial, the State presented physical evidence linking Eason to the crime, and
testimony from a witness who met Eason in jail to establish that, on November 2, 2012, in
the course of a burglary of a Minneapolis home, Eason killed the homeowner by stabbing.
The jury returned a guilty verdict on the first-degree felony murder charge and a not-guilty
verdict on second-degree intentional murder. The district court sentenced Eason to life in
prison with the possibility of release after 30 years.
Eason filed a notice of appeal a few months later, and his attorney—an assistant
state public defender—filed a 24-page brief on his behalf. But before the State’s brief was
due, Eason and his attorney filed a notice of voluntary dismissal. The record does not
disclose why Eason made the decision to dismiss his appeal. We granted Eason’s motion
to dismiss. See Minn. R. Crim. P. 28.06.
Almost two years later, Eason filed a pro se petition for postconviction relief.
Eason’s petition argued that his trial counsel was ineffective and that the prosecutor
improperly refused to renew her initial plea offer.1 Eason asked the postconviction court
to appoint counsel to represent him in the postconviction proceedings. See Minn. Stat.
§ 590.05 (2016) (“A person financially unable to obtain counsel . . . may apply for
representation by the state public defender.”). The state public defender’s office declined
to represent Eason, noting that the office had represented Eason on direct appeal and that
he “chose to terminate our representation.” The district court then denied Eason’s
postconviction petition without holding an evidentiary hearing.
Eason appealed and filed a motion asking us to appoint counsel to represent him on
appeal. In November 2016, we issued an order stating, “[w]e have not decided whether an
appellant, represented in a direct appeal from a judgment of conviction who voluntarily
dismisses the appeal before a decision by the court on the merits of the appeal, has ‘had a
direct appeal of conviction’ for purposes of Minn. Stat. § 611.14(2).” We referred Eason’s
1 Eason also argued that there was insufficient evidence in the record to support his conviction, the district court improperly failed to obtain his consent to instruct the jury about his failure to testify, and the district court improperly inserted itself into plea negotiations.
request for counsel to the Chief Appellate Public Defender. In response, she decided to
provide representation for Eason’s postconviction appeal.
The issue in this case is whether Eason’s right to counsel under Minn. Stat. § 590.05
(2016) was fully vindicated. Questions of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo.
See State v. Leathers, 799 N.W.2d 606, 608 (Minn. 2011). When interpreting a statute, we
begin with its plain meaning. State v. Vasko, 889 N.W.2d 551, 556 (Minn. 2017). “If a
statute is unambiguous, then we must apply the statute’s plain meaning.” Id. (quoting
Larson v. State, 790 N.W.2d 700, 703 (Minn. 2010)).
Eason argues that he is entitled to appointed counsel on his postconviction petition
under Minn. Stat. § 590.05. He further contends that the postconviction court erred by
failing to determine whether his waiver of counsel on direct appeal was competent and
intelligent. We agree with his first argument and need not reach the second.
The statute provides that a person financially unable to obtain counsel, such as
Eason, who desires to pursue postconviction relief is entitled to representation by the state
public defender “if the person has not already had a direct appeal of the conviction.” Minn.
Stat. § 590.05. The statute implements the right to appellate counsel under Article I, section
6 of the Minnesota Constitution (“The accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the
assistance of counsel in his defense.”). In Deegan v. State, we held that “a defendant’s
right to the assistance of counsel . . . . extends to one review of a criminal conviction,
whether by direct appeal or a first review by postconviction proceeding.” 711 N.W.2d 89,
98 (Minn. 2006). Conversely, “a defendant who has been represented by counsel on direct
appeal has no right under the Minnesota Constitution to the assistance of counsel . . . in a
subsequent postconviction proceeding.” Ferguson v. State, 826 N.W.2d 808, 816 (Minn.
The question is whether Eason “had a direct appeal” within the meaning of section
590.05. We conclude that he did not. Deegan requires one meaningful “review of a
criminal conviction” with the assistance of counsel, 711 N.W.2d at 98. As relevant here,
“review” means “judicial reexamination (as of the proceedings of a lower tribunal by a
higher).” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language 1944
(2002); see also Review, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (defining “review” as
“[c]onsideration, inspection, or reexamination of a subject or thing”); id. (defining
“appellate review” as “[e]xamination of a lower court’s decision by a higher court . . . .”);
The New Oxford American Dictionary 1458 (2001) (defining “review” as “a formal
assessment or examination of something with the possibility or intention of instituting
change if necessary … a reconsideration of a judgment, sentence, etc., by a higher court or
authority”). Applying these definitions, the plain and unambiguous meaning of “review”
means that the appellate court must have the opportunity to reexamine the case being
appealed. The appellate court has the opportunity to reexamine a case when it has been
submitted for decision.
We conclude that an appellant’s right to assistance of counsel under section 590.05
has been satisfied when the appeal has been submitted to the appellate court for decision.
Typically, in our court, a case is submitted for decision when all briefing has been
completed and we take the case under advisement at the conclusion of oral argument. In
cases decided without oral argument, an appellant has had a “review” as of the date
scheduled for nonoral consideration. See, e.g., Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 134.06 (explaining
that a case is deemed “submitted on the briefs” on the date scheduled for nonoral
Eason’s direct appeal was dismissed before briefing was completed and before we
scheduled the appeal for consideration. He has not yet had his conviction reviewed.
Therefore, he was entitled to an appointed attorney for postconviction proceedings. The
postconviction court erred in not granting Eason’s request for counsel.
The dissent would draw the line earlier in the process, reading section 590.05 to
forbid appointment of counsel when the indigent person has made a previous “request for
such an appeal” as part of a “legal proceeding.” But the dissent’s dictionary definitions do
not squarely answer the question here: precisely when in the legal proceeding has the
indigent person actually “had” an appeal? Instead, the dissent extrapolates from its
definitions to opine that an appellant has “had” an appeal when he has “done enough for
the appeal to be decided,” which occurs when counsel has filed a brief.
We disagree. A notice of appeal and an opening brief usually are not enough for a
court to decide an appeal. Obviously, the State has an opportunity to submit a brief, to
which a reply brief may respond. See Minn. R. Crim. P. 28.02, subd. 10. Further, on direct
appeal, we usually grant oral argument. See Minn. R. Crim. P. 29.04, subd. 9 (explaining
that oral argument “must be granted” unless we decide otherwise). We often find oral
argument helpful. In deciding when the “one review” contemplated by Deegan has been
“had,” we draw the line when we have what we typically need to decide the legal
proceeding: when the case is submitted to the court.2
Given our conclusion, the appropriate disposition of the case is to remand it to the
postconviction court so that Eason can pursue, with the assistance of counsel, a first review
by postconviction proceeding.
Outcome: For the foregoing reasons, we reverse the decision of the postconviction court and remand for appointment of counsel and further proceedings.