William Scott Ashwell was acquitted of burglary and escape by the Mississippi Supreme Court on August 24, 2017. The Supreme Court ruled Ashwell had never been charged with the crimes, so the trial court had no jurisdiction to find him guilty in 2006 and sentence him to 15 years in prison.
On December 14, 2006 William Ashwell, upon the advise of his lawyer, pled guilty to separate charges of burglary and escape in Lawrence County, Mississippi. Judge Michael Eubank accepted his guilty pleas in both cases. Later that month Ashwell was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his burglary conviction. Ashwell was separately sentenced on December 27, 2006 to five years in prison for his escape conviction, to run concurrently with his burglary sentence.
A condition of Ashwell’s sentences was that if he successfully completed a three-month drug and alcohol treatment program, and a two year Intensive Supervision Program (ISP), the remainder of his prison sentence would be suspended and he would be placed on post-release supervision for the remainder of his 15 year sentence.
After successfully completing the drug treatment program and the two year ISP program, Ashwell was released from prison.
In July 2010 Ashwell was arrested and charged with testing positive for marijuana in March 2009, and for possession of precursors with intent to manufacture methamphetamine. Ashwell’s post-release supervision was revoked and he was returned to prison to complete his sentence.
In August 2013 Ashwell filed a pro-se post-conviction petition to withdraw his guilty pleas to burglary and escape, based on the trial court’s lack of jurisdiction to find him guilty and sentence him for either charge in 2006. Ashwell asserted the criminal docket for both cases showed the Lawrence County District Attorney didn’t file a Bill of Information against him. Thus he pled guilty to non-existent charges. In addition, Ashwell asserted his pleas were involuntary because the Waivers of Indictment filed in 2006 were defective because they failed to specify the dates of his two alleged offenses.
After he filed his petition Ashwell was released on parole, after serving a total of about 5-1/2 years in custody.
In June 2014 the judge ordered the State to respond to Ashwell’s petition. Ashwell was also appointed a lawyer.
The State admitted in its response that neither docket for Ashwell’s cases referenced the filing of a Bill of Information.
Nevertheless, the State claimed his guilty pleas were valid. The State’s defense was an affidavit by the prosecutor who handled Ashwell’s two cases in 2006: the prosecutor asserted that in “[t]he normal procedure” for a prosecution by criminal information, “the Bill of Information is submitted by the District Attorney’s Office to the Clerk of Court,” and that “[t]o my knowledge, the normal procedure for a plea by Bill of Information would have occurred in this case.” The State also claimed a criminal information was mentioned in the plea documents, and during the plea colloquy at the time Ashwell pled guilty.
Judge Prentiss Greene Harrell denied Ashwell’s petition on November 20, 2014. Harrell ruled it was irrelevant there was no evidence in the court docket a Bill of Information had been filed in either of Ashwell’s cases. Harrell ruled the prosecutor’s affidavit, and the mention of a criminal information in the plea documents and plea colloquy, were sufficient to prove a Bill of Information had existed at the time Ashwell was convicted and sentenced — even though there was no physical evidence it had ever been filed.
On June 7, 2016 the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Harrell’s ruling. The appeals court ruled it was within the judge’s discretion to make the factual determination that a Bill of Information must have existed, because “All parties involved certainly proceeded as though a bill of information existed.” The appeals court also ruled that Ashwell’s claim about the defective Waivers of Indictment was procedurally barred by the three-year statute of limitations.
The Mississippi Supreme Court accepted Ashwell’s petition to review his case.
On August 24, 2017 the Mississippi Supreme Court unanimously vacated Ashwell’s convictions on the basis no Bill of Information charging him with a crime had been filed, and since he had not been charged with a crime the trial court lacked jurisdiction to find him guilty. The Court’s ruling in Ashwell v. Mississippi states in part:
¶11. The Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit judge’s reasoning that a criminal information must have existed because it was mentioned in the plea documents, plea colloquy, and a prosecutor’s affidavit. But Ashwell’s claim does not rest on the existence of a document which purported to be a criminal information, but rather on the fact that the State failed ever to charge him with a crime. [Op. cit. 5]
¶13. The very nature of a criminal information shows that one must be filed for the court to proceed. [Id., 6]
¶14. Likewise, this Court has recognized that a defendant is charged when the information is filed. … So we must agree with Ashwell’s contention that the circuit court lacks jurisdiction and authority to accept a guilty plea for a crime for which he never has been charged.” [Id., 7]
¶15. Because the State never charged Ashwell with a crime, the circuit court lacked jurisdiction and authority to accept Ashwell’s guilty pleas. So we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals, reverse the judgment of the circuit court, and vacate Ashwell’s convictions for burglary and escape. [Id.]
Click here to read the Mississippi Supreme Court’s ruling in William Scott Ashwell v. Mississippi, No. 2015-CT-00023-SCT (Miss. Sup. Ct., 8-24-2017).
Ashwell is 35 and living in Meridian, Mississippi.