By: Federico Flores
The court of criminal appeals reverses and finds ineffective assistance of counsel where the trial court approved a negotiated settlement calling for concurrent state and federal sentencing in a vehicular homicide and vehicular assault case.
This case arose out of easily one of the most tragic incidents in recent years in east Tennessee. On September 6, 2012, Tyler Schaeffer crashed head-on into a church bus carrying members of the Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Sevierville. Two church members were killed and eleven others injured. Evidence indicated that Schaeffer was high on bath salts and methamphetamine at the time of the crash.
With his state court case pending, Schaeffer was then charged in federal court with fourteen counts of robbery and related firearm offenses. Schaeffer pled guilty and was sentenced to one hundred years to serve in the federal penitentiary.
Six months after entering guilty pleas in federal court, Schaeffer returned to Sevier County Circuit Court and pled guilty to two counts of vehicular homicide, nine counts of vehicular assault, two counts of aggravated assault, and one count of controlled substance analog. He was sentenced to forty years to serve in the state penitentiary.
Part of the agreement called for Schaeffer’s state sentence to run concurrent to his federal sentence. At the time, this most likely seemed obvious because of what practically amounted to a consolidated death sentence however way you want to cut it. The United States Attorney’s office was not consulted on this settlement, however, and the court of appeals found a massive problem with that fact.
On appeal from a denial of post-conviction relief, the court found Schaeffer received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney told him his state and federal sentences would run concurrently without obtaining the approval of the federal government. Consequently, his convictions were reversed and remanded to the trial court. The court applied a fairly straightforward and on-point precedent that a state court cannot tell a federal court what to do.
Therefore, the promise of concurrent sentencing made to Schaeffer, in the words of the court, was “not worth the paper on which it is written.” In hindsight, this concept appears fairly obvious, but in the heat of litigation and especially, as in this case, where the sentences were so massive, one can easily overlook the obligation to coordinate with the United States Attorney when dealing with a cross-jurisdictional matter.
Schaeffer’s victory is heavily qualified. He still has to serve his federal sentence and his state case merely remands for further proceedings. I don’t imagine Schaeffer will see the outside of a prison for a long time, if ever. This is a case where just about everyone dropped the ball, including the trial court.
This case serves as a brutal reminder of the consequences of overlooking procedural details. Both defense counsel and prosecutor are well-respected, highly skilled, and experienced attorneys which goes to show that this can happen to any attorney. The lesson of this case is to always double-check your work. As attorneys, that principle applies to everything we do.
Federico Flores, Associate in the Knoxville office, focuses on Appellate Practice, Workers’ Compensation, Liability (Automobile and Premises), Litigation (Civil Rights, Insurance Defense and Property, Criminal Defense, and Immigration) law.
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