Bare Assertion of Innocence Insufficient to Withdraw Guilty Plea Prior to Sentencing

A defendant’s claim of innocence must be plausible in order to constitute a fair and just reason for a presentence withdrawal of a guilty plea, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Com. v. Carrasquillo, __ A.3d __ (No. 7 EAP 2014, filed June 15, 2015). The Court reached the same result in a companion case, Com. v. Hvizda, __ A.3d __ (No. 6 MAP 2014, filed June 15, 2015). In the lead case, Jose Carrasquillo entered open guilty pleas to various sexual offenses, including the rape of an eleven-year-old girl. The trial court accepted the pleas and entered verdicts. Subsequently, at his sentencing hearing, Carrasquillo explained in allocution that he had pled guilty to spare his victim suffering. He also discussed unrelated scenarios in which he had been victimized by the CIA and visited by a serpent that caused the Antichrist to “come out of him.” Carrasquillo claimed that he did not commit the assault and had been framed. He insisted that a polygraph test would prove his innocence and asked to withdraw his guilty plea. The sentencing court denied the motion, explaining that Carrasquillo had not advanced a fair and just reason for withdrawing his plea and that withdrawal would substantially prejudice the Commonwealth.

On appeal, a divided en banc Superior Court panel reversed. Com. v. Carrasquillo, 78 A.3d 1120 (Pa. Super. 2013). The majority held that Carrasquillo’s unambiguous assertion of innocence, even if insincere and accompanied by “fantastical and outlandish claims,” constituted a fair and just reason for withdrawing his guilty plea. The majority further held that the Commonwealth’s interest in shielding the victim from testifying was insufficient as a matter of law to establish prejudice.

On review, the Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the judgment of sentence, holding that Carrasquillo’s bare assertion of innocence was insufficient to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea prior to sentencing. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Saylor reiterated the Court’s prior holding that “any demonstration by a defendant of a fair-and-just reason will suffice to support a

[plea withdrawal], unless withdrawal would work substantial prejudice to the Commonwealth.” The Court rejected a “per se approach to innocence claims” like that followed by the Superior Court, which foreclosed any assessment of the defendant’s credibility. Instead, the Court held that “a defendant’s innocence claim must be at least plausible to demonstrate, in and of itself, a fair and just reason for presentence withdrawal of a plea.” The defendant must make a “colorable demonstration” that permitting withdrawal of his plea will “promote fairness and justice.” Under the circumstances presented here, the Court held that Carrasquillo failed to satisfy that standard.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Baer, agreed that it was not necessary for the majority to address whether the Commonwealth would have been prejudiced by Carrasquillo’s withdrawal of his plea. Justice Stevens opined that the trial court, in finding prejudice, properly considered the Commonwealth’s substantial evidence of the harmful effect of withdrawal on the victim’s psychological and emotional well-being.

The companion case, Com. v. Hvizda, also involved a presentence guilty plea withdrawal based upon a bare assertion of innocence. As in Carrasquillo, the sentencing court disallowed withdrawal, the Superior Court reversed, and the Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the judgment of sentence. The opinion is noteworthy because the Court expressly disapproved of its prior decision in Com. v. Lesko, 467 A.2d 307 (Pa. 1983), which invoked the standard for a post-sentence plea withdrawal and held that a defendant subject to a mandatory life sentence had to establish a “manifest injustice” to support a presentence withdrawal.

By | 2017-05-19T22:51:28+00:00 July 7th, 2015|Categories: Criminal Law|Tags: , , , |Comments Off on Bare Assertion of Innocence Insufficient to Withdraw Guilty Plea Prior to Sentencing

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