A Drew County man who received a life sentence after pleading guilty to first-degree murder in the February 2012 torture and beating death of his 2-year-old stepdaughter, lost another appeal.
In a June 2013 plea agreement, Daniel Pedraza, who was charged with capital murder and facing a possible death sentence, agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder and be sentenced by a jury for the death of his stepdaughter, Aubriana Coke.
The plea agreement came after nearly eight hours of jury voir dire. As part of the plea bargain, Pedraza, now 37, agreed to waive any and all errors that may have occurred up to that time. Pedraza, however, reserved the right of appeal any error occurring during his sentencing for first degree murder.
The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the life sentence in 2014 and rejected another appeal on Thursday.
In his latest appeal, Pedraza argued that his trial lawyers were ineffective.
Among his arguments, Pedraza claims his attorneys failed to conduct an adequate investigation of his case and obtain evidence to refute the prosecution’s medical evidence about the cause of the child’s death and failed to spend enough time with him to discuss trial strategy. Had they done so, he claims, they would have discovered defenses such as a mental dysfunction.
Though he claims his attorneys failed to conduct an adequate investigation or spend enough time with him, he did not contend that he would have changed his plea had they done so or that there was any specific information that could have been uncovered,” the court said in a per curiam order.
“To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to investigate, the petitioner must allege some direct correlation between counsel’s deficient performance and the decision to enter the plea, or the petitioner is procedurally barred from post conviction relief,” the court said. “… As Pedraza did not offer any specific information that could been discovered that would have changed his decision to enter his plea, he did not show that counsel made any error.”
Pedraza also argued that his lawyers failed to present mitigation evidence such as the testimony of his mother, a sister, and a close friend who could have testified about his early childhood standards, relationship with higher powers, military background, and academic achievements.
“The petitioner, however, must do more than state that there were additional witnesses who could have offered testimony in mitigation; he must establish that counsel’s conduct was deficient,” the court said.
Pedraza’s lawyers called a number of witnesses to present mitigating testimony including two men who had served with Pedraza in the military and testified about his military service and their friendship. One of the men was a staff sergeant, who testified that he had served with Pedraza in Iraq and that Pedraza was a good, reliable soldier who had earned commendations for his service. Evidence of the commendations was admitted into evidence by the defense. The other man testified that he and Pedraza had come under enemy fire and gone on more than two hundred missions that were stressful and frightening.
Pedraza’s attorneys also called a part-time police officer who had been Pedraza’s neighbor. He testified that Pedraza was a good person who had worked well with the neighborhood children and had earned his respect.
A priest testified about his service as Pedraza’s pastor and Pedraza’s involvement with the church in activities such as delivering food to people in the community. The priest gave his opinion that Pedraza was “very much esteemed” in his Christian faith.
Two of Pedraza’s sisters testified at length as to the deplorable living conditions of the family when Pedraza was a child; illnesses the family suffered from drinking unsanitary water; the lack of money, food, clothing, and medical care; his developmental delays as a child; and his gentle nature and love of children. One sister described Pedraza’s crying as he recounted his experiences in the military and displayed to the jury drawings done by Pedraza depicting religious and patriotic themes. She also described how Pedraza had threatened to commit suicide.
The court said Pedraza did not establish in his petition that additional would have affected the jury’s decision that a sentence of life imprisonment was appropriate.
Pedraza also claimed that his guilty plea was coerced by his attorneys, that his attorneys should not have waived any errors that may have occurred prior to his plea agreement, and should have objected to the jury being sworn for the sentencing proceeding without further voir dire.
“As we noted on appeal from the sentencing proceeding, the jury was selected in Pedraza’s case, but it had not been sworn at the time the State and Pedraza reached the plea agreement,” the court said in the per curiam order. “In the agreement, the State agreed to waive the death penalty and reduce the charge to first-degree murder, and Pedraza agreed to plead guilty to that charge and be sentenced by the jury. Pedraza also agreed to waive any errors that may have occurred prior to his plea. When the jury next appeared for the sentencing proceeding, counsel for Pedraza sought to ask, or have the trial court ask, additional questions concerning their reaction to Pedraza’s change in plea. The trial court denied the request, and counsel proffered the questions it would have asked of the jury. The jury was sworn and ultimately determined that Pedraza should be sentenced to life imprisonment. Pedraza argued on appeal that the trial court had committed certain constitutional errors and abused its discretion in denying his request to conduct additional voir dire of the jury. We held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to allow additional voir dire and that there was no violation of Pedraza’s right to due process and an impartial jury… Because counsel did raise the issue concerning additional voir dire of the jury, Pedraza did not show that counsel was ineffective.”
The court said Pedraza’s offered no facts to support his allegations that his attorneys were ineffective in waiving all issues raised before the guilty plea or his claim that his attorneys coerced him to enter the guilty plea.
Pedraza further alleged that he was prejudiced when the prosecutor asked a witness how many children Pedraza would have to kill before the witness changed his opinion of Pedraza.
“If Pedraza intended the allegation to be a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, counsel objected at the time the question was asked,” the court said. “Pedraza did not contend that there was any further action that counsel should have taken, and thus he did not establish that counsel was ineffective.”
In his final point on appeal, Pedraza claimed that his lawyer’s errors, considered cumulatively, show that he received ineffective counsel.
“It is well settled,” the court said, “that this court does not recognize the concept of cumulative error in Rule 37.1 proceedings when assessing whether a petitioner was afforded effective assistance of counsel.”
(stories in descending order beginning with most recent)
Jury selection for Pedraza trial starts Thursday (pretrial feature with photos)