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James Allen Higginbotham a/k/a James A. Higginbotham a/k/a James Higginbotham v. State of Mississippi
Case Number: 2020-CP-00115-COA
Judge: Anthony N. “Tony” Lawrence III
Court: IN THE COURT OF APPEALS OF THE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI
Plaintiff's Attorney: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
BY: BILLY L. GORE
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Little Rock, AR - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant James Allen Higginbotham charged with murder pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-3-19(1)(a) (Rev. 2006)..
On March 26, 2008, a Winston County grand jury indicted Higginbotham on one
count of capital murder pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-3-19(2)(d) (Rev.
2006). On May 18, 2009, Higginbotham pled guilty to the lesser-included offense of murder
pursuant to section 97-3-19(1)(a). At the plea hearing, the State presented its factual basis
of the charge against Higginbotham as follows:
The State would show that his part in this was that he knew about the plot to
kill Mr. Vowell. He provided the gun to his cousin, J.C. Higginbotham, drove
him to the chicken house the morning of the murder to let him commit the
After the murder was committed, he picked him up, helping him dispose of the
firearm and drove him away, helped him dispose of the firearm and his gloves,
burned his clothes and helped him after the fact, as well.
As a result of his guilty plea, Higginbotham was sentenced to spend the remainder of his
natural life in the custody of the MDOC.
¶3. On April 7, 2011, Higginbotham filed his first PCR motion. Following an evidentiary
hearing, the circuit court denied Higginbotham’s 2011 PCR motion. This Court upheld the
ruling of the circuit court. Higginbotham, 114 So. 3d at 18 (¶27).
¶4. On October 7, 2019, eight years after filing his 2011 PCR motion and nearly ten years
after the entry of his guilty plea, Higginbotham filed a motion to vacate the conviction, which
the circuit court treated as his second PCR motion. In his 2019 PCR motion, Higginbotham
claimed that (1) there was an “insufficient factual basis for his guilty plea” resulting in an
illegal sentence, and (2) that his right to due process was violated by the circuit court’s
placing restrictions on the motions that he was allowed file. On January 21, 2020, the circuit
court entered an order and opinion that denied Higginbotham’s 2019 PCR motion.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
¶5. “When reviewing a trial court’s denial or dismissal of a [PCR motion], we will only
disturb the trial court’s factual findings if they are clearly erroneous; however, we review
legal conclusions under a de novo standard of review.” Chapman v. State, 167 So. 3d 1170,
1172 (¶3) (Miss. 2015).
¶6. Higginbotham alleges that there was an “insufficient factual basis for his guilty plea,”
which resulted in an illegal sentence. More specifically, he claims that the alleged facts
presented by the State at his plea hearing were consistent with the crime of accessory after
the fact pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 97-1-5, and therefore he should have
been sentenced under that statute. Higginbotham also alleges that his right to due process
was violated as a result of the circuit court’s placing restrictions on the motions that he was
allowed to file.
¶7. First, we recognize that Higginbotham’s 2019 PCR motion is clearly time-barred
pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 99-39-5(2) (Rev. 2015), which states:
A motion for relief under this article shall be made within three (3) years after
the time in which the petitioner’s direct appeal is ruled upon by the Supreme
Court of Mississippi or, in case no appeal is taken, within three (3) years after
the time for taking an appeal from the judgment of conviction or sentence has
expired, or in case of a guilty plea, within three (3) years after entry of the
judgment of conviction.
Higginbotham’s 2019 PCR motion was filed well outside the three-year time limit allowed
by statute and nearly ten years after the entry of his guilty plea. Therefore, Higginbotham’s
2019 PCR motion is time-barred.
¶8. Further, Higginbotham’s 2019 PCR motion is barred as a successive motion pursuant
to Mississippi Code Annotated section 99-39-23(6) (Rev. 2015), which states that “any order
dismissing the petitioner’s motion or otherwise denying relief under this article is a final
judgment and . . . shall be a bar to a second or successive motion under this article.”
Higginbotham filed his 2011 PCR motion on April 7, 2011. His 2011 PCR motion was
denied by the circuit court pursuant to an order dated August 17, 2011. This Court upheld
the circuit court’s ruling in Higginbotham, 114 So. 3d at 18 (¶27). In fact, this Court
addressed one of the exact issues that Higginbotham asserts in his current appeal concerning
the alleged “insufficient factual basis for his guilty plea.” In its prior opinion, this Court
stated, “‘A valid guilty plea waives the right to challenge the sufficiency of the State’s
evidence’. . . . Higginbotham can no longer challenge the sufficiency of the State’s evidence
of his guilt regarding murder. This argument is without merit.” Id. (citation omitted).
Therefore, Higginbotham’s 2019 PCR motion is barred as a successive motion.
¶9. Higginbotham claims a fundamental-right exception to the procedural bars in
Mississippi Code Annotated section 99-39-5(2) (Rev. 2015) and MississippiCodeAnnotated
section 99-39-23(6) (Rev. 2015). The following “fundamental-rights exceptions have been
expressly found to survive procedural bars: (1) the right against double jeopardy; (2) the right
to be free from an illegal sentence; (3) the right to due process at sentencing; and (4) the right
not to be subject to ex post facto laws.” Nichols v. State, 265 So. 3d 1239, 1242 (¶10) (Miss.
Ct. App. 2018), cert. denied, 265 So. 3d 181 (Miss. 2019). But “the mere assertion of a
constitutional right violation does not trigger the exception.” Evans v. State, 115 So. 3d 879,
881 (¶3) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). There must be some basis
of truth for his claim. Mays v. State, 228 So. 3d 946, 948 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017).
I. Illegal Sentence
¶10. Higginbotham claimsthat he suffered from an illegal sentence as a result of his guilty
plea to a defective indictment. More specifically, he argues that the State presented an
“insufficient factual basis” for the crime of murder, and therefore he should not have been
sentenced accordingly. He claims that the factual basis presented by the State at the plea
hearing was consistent with the crime of accessory after the fact and that he should have been
sentenced as such. Higginbotham claims that his PCR motion should survive any applicable
procedural bars because he received an allegedly illegal sentence as a result of his guilty plea
to a defective indictment.
¶11. In Higginbotham, 114 So. 3d at 15 (¶19), this Court stated that “[a]fter reviewing the
record, we find no evidence in the record contrary to the finding of the circuit court that
Higginbothamentered a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent plea.” Further, this Court stated,
“A valid guilty plea waives the right to challenge the sufficiency of the State’s evidence.”
Id. at 16 (¶24) (quoting Grissom v. State, 66 So. 3d 1280, 1282 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011)).
Given the fact that Higginbotham has waived his right to challenge the sufficiency of the
State’s evidence, he has no basis for his argument that he received an illegal sentence.
Further, this Court has already held that the facts presented at Higginbotham’s guilty plea
hearing were sufficient and that he entered a voluntary waiver of his rights. Higginbotham’s
sentence was required by statute. Therefore, Higginbotham’s claim that he suffered an
alleged illegal sentence as a result of a defective indictment is both time-barred and
successive-writ barred and not contrary to Mississippi law.
II. Due Process
¶12. Higginbothamalleges that his due process rights were violated as a result ofthe circuit
court’s placing restrictions on the motions that he was allowed to file. He asserts that his due
process claimshould survive anyapplicable procedural bar as a fundamental-right exception.
The record is completely devoid of any evidence that would support Higginbotham’s claim.
In fact, to the contrary, the fact that Higginbotham was allowed to file his current PCR
motion belies that claim. Higginbotham’s claim is without merit and does not qualify as a
fundamental-right exception. Therefore, Higginbotham’s claim that his right to due process
was allegedly violated is both time-barred and successive-writ barred.