Make no mistake, words mean something when a criminal defendant takes an oath before a judge and admits to crimes.
By MARK MORRIS
The Kansas City Star
Of all of the courts’ liturgies, none, save that used at sentencing, is more formal than the plea colloquy. Or as full of lasting consequences.
And if a defendant later has regrets, climbing from under those consequences is difficult.
All those issues bubbled up Sunday in an article by Judy L. Thomas and Laura Bauer, who reported on a 42-page letter they received from Jacole Prince, the mother of LP, a young girl whom authorities found locked in a closet in 2012.
Prince now contends she never meant to plead guilty — actually “no contest” on two of the three charges, which courts treat as guilty because evidence of the crime no longer is in dispute.
Jackson County Circuit Judge John Torrence heard Prince’s cry from the heart and granted her wish. He set aside her pleas. But she may soon find that victory hollow. Torrence returned her case to the trial docket, an option prosecutors could welcome if they believe they have already offered Prince the best deal they can.
Of course, this drama need never have happened. At its heart, the plea hearing is a carefully scripted conversation between a defendant and a judge.
And along the way, defendants get oodles of opportunities to discuss how well their defense lawyers have performed and whether anyone has threatened or coerced them to accept the plea. Defendants regularly raise such questions, and judges then sort them out or postpone the hearings.
But each assurance to the judge that everything is fine diminishes the defendant’s ability to again have the merits of those questions considered. And the real result of withdrawing a guilty plea — returning the case to the trial docket — has its own hazards.
Case in point: Last summer, a federal appeals court permitted Wichita drug defendant Ramiro Avila to withdraw his guilty plea because the judge had misinformed Avila about his appeals rights. Still, within weeks of that ruling, Avila pleaded guilty again.
Whether Prince could even get another negotiated plea agreement appears to be an open question. Such deals often come with expiration dates. And if a defendant is determined to put a case before jurors, prosecutors generally oblige.
To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.