Until this week, Jacole Prince’s fate rested in the hands of a Jackson County judge.
By LAURA BAUER and JUDY L. THOMAS
The Kansas City Star
But now a jury may have the final say on the woman whose severely malnourished daughter was rescued from a locked closet 20 months ago.
Circuit Judge John Torrence issued an order Monday withdrawing Prince’s recent guilty pleas, saying she had contacted him — and The Kansas City Star — and complained that she never meant to admit to two of the three felonies. She said her public defender, Curtis Winegarner, had forced her into the plea deal, Torrence wrote.
“The Court finds and concludes that defendant Prince misled the Court when answering questions about the voluntariness of her guilty pleas on January 7, 2014 and that, in fact, she did not knowingly intend to enter pleas of guilty on such date,” Torrence wrote in his order.
Torrence, who was scheduled to sentence Prince in late April, said he had received a postcard from her on Jan. 17.
“Among other claims, defendant Prince wrote that she ‘didn’t except (sic) the plea because I did not want to take the plea,’ ” Torrence wrote. “The note also states that ‘Mr. Curtis Winegarner had threaten me to except (sic) that plea.’ ”
Winegarner did not respond to a call or email asking for comment, but in the past has said that he cannot speak publicly about his cases.
Torrence said Prince’s comments to the court appear similar to those she made in a 42-page letter sent to The Star about the same time.
“The letter essentially repeats the same statements concerning the alleged coerced and involuntary guilty pleas entered in this case on January 7, 2014,” he wrote.
The judge said he determined that the postcard “should be treated as a request to withdraw” her guilty pleas.
“This case shall be placed back on the trial docket for a jury trial,” he wrote.
Torrence also requested that the case be transferred to another judge because he has been assigned to the Family Court Division for two years.
The action came one day after The Star published a story about the letter the newspaper had received from Prince. In the letter, Prince, 30, said she never intended to plead guilty to abusing her daughter. The emaciated girl, whom the community has come to know as LP, was found by a police officer and a social worker in the family’s Kansas City apartment in June 2012. The girl was 10 years old then, weighed just 32 pounds and was surrounded by her own waste.
Prince was charged with child abuse, first-degree assault and child endangerment, all felonies. She entered what are known as Alford pleas on the abuse and assault charges, conceding that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her. She pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child.
Her two other daughters were removed from her care.
As part of the plea deal, prosecutors agreed to cap Prince’s prison time at 20 years. She could have faced life in prison on the assault charge alone. Sentencing had been scheduled for April 25.
Mike Mansur, spokesman for the Jackson County prosecutor’s office, said: “We stand ready to proceed to trial.”
Prince showed signs at her hearing last month that she either wasn’t on board with the plea agreement or was confused by it. When she first stood before the judge and he asked whether she wanted to plead guilty, she told him no. After a brief recess, Prince returned with her attorney and said she wanted the judge to accept her guilty pleas.
But in her letter, in which Prince said Winegarner was “not doing everything he can for me,” she said the plea wasn’t what she wanted to do. Prince denied striking her daughter, starving her or intentionally hurting her. She said she’d tried to feed LP but the girl couldn’t eat a lot.
Months after LP was rescued, she had to get a heart transplant.
Prince also wrote that she loved her girls and missed them every day. “I never meant for any of this to happen.”
A legal expert said last week that Prince’s letter raised questions about her mental state and whether she understood the seriousness of what prosecutors say she did to her daughter.
Sean O’Brien, a veteran defense lawyer and University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who reviewed the letter, said “there’s not much question in my mind that this is a very impaired woman mentally.”
Winegarner told the judge last month that he and Prince had discussed using mental illness as a defense but decided that her condition did not rise to that level. He added, however, that it still could be a factor at her sentencing.
Experts said it’s rare for a defendant to contact a judge and want to change a plea.
“I don’t think it’s very common, but I think the judge did the right thing,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “If the defendant is clear, and I assume the judge could judge her credibility and make that decision, then he ought to honor her preferences.”
As for Prince’s criticism of her attorney?
“I think the public and judges and everybody realizes that sometimes defendants don’t understand, and sometimes the lawyer may seem overbearing to them,” Tobias said. “The judge has to work that out by hearing everybody in court. It’s sort of embarrassing, but that’s what you do when you’re a public defender. You have to roll with the punches. But I don’t think that reflects badly on the public defender.”