Plea deals are an important part of the West Virginia criminal justice system that offers certain benefits for both prosecutors and a person charged with a crime. It saves prosecutors the time and effort that comes with a full-blown trial, while offering a defendant who faces likely conviction to avoid a public trial and potentially get a lighter punishment. As a recent Supreme Court case shows, however, it’s important to know before agreeing to a deal that you probably won’t be able to change your mind once you’ve pleaded guilty to a crime.
Frank D. was indicted on 59 counts of sex-related crimes in September 2007. About three years later, he agreed to plead guilty to six of the charges: five counts of first-degree sexual abuse and one count of second-degree sexual assault. In exchange for pleading guilty, state prosecutors agreed to drop the remaining charges. Frank acknowledged that he would waive his right to certain constitutional defenses and was informed of the maximum possible sentence that he could receive. He also acknowledged that his plea was voluntary. Frank entered what the courts call a “Kennedy” plea. He acknowledged that there was enough evidence to prove that he was guilty but continued to deny that he actually committed the crimes.
In January 2011, however, Frank filed a motion seeking to withdraw the plea. He claimed that he’d told his lawyer during the original plea hearing that they could take the case to trial and “beat it,” but the lawyer became angry and forced him to accept the plea deal. A circuit court denied the request, finding that the evidence showed Frank entered the plea freely and willingly. He was ultimately sentenced to 15 to 50 years in prison.
Affirming the decision on appeal, the Supreme Court explained that “a defendant has no absolute right to withdraw a guilty plea before sentencing.” The Court found that the circuit court didn’t abuse its discretion because Frank’s claim that he was forced to take the deal was contradicted by his earlier testimony at the earlier plea hearing. “[A]lthough he later claimed that his plea was involuntary because his counsel ‘pressured’ him into the agreement, petitioner acknowledged at the plea hearing that he desired to move forward with the plea, which he claimed to enter voluntarily,” the Court noted. “[F]urther, he specifically stated that he was not forced by any other person to enter the plea.” As a result, the Court upheld the prison sentence.
As this case makes clear, there are a number of issues to consider when mulling a possible plea agreement in a criminal case. It’s important that a person facing criminal charges seek the counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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