A man with a long rap sheet is indicted on rape charges after police review murky video footage showing him at the scene of the crime at the time of the attack. In addition, the victim has picked him out of a lineup. Claiming he actually was trying to help the victim, but fearing a lifetime behind bars, he pleads guilty to the crime in exchange for a lighter sentence. But just days after being sentenced to 10 years in prison, another surveillance tape (from a different angle) is released showing a different man committing the crime while the now-sentenced man tries to protect the victim. Further investigation leads to the other suspect's arrest.
It all happened so fast and the victim's memory was clouded by the trauma, but is it too late to make this right? Withdrawing a guilty plea after sentencing is usually not an option, but the above scenario illustrates one such exception.
Guilty Pleas and Sentencing: The Basics
The vast majority of criminal cases end in a guilty plea or "no contest" (nolo contendre) plea for a variety of reasons, including purely strategic ones unrelated to actual guilt. For instance, a defendant's chances at trial may seem slim (and a plea bargain is offered); there may be confusion surrounding the incident; the decision to plead guilty resulted from ineffective legal counsel; or perhaps an attorney wasn't present at the arraignment.
Before sentencing, courts generally allow defendants to withdraw a guilty plea for any "fair and just reason," especially if the judge hasn't yet accepted the plea or rejects a negotiated plea deal. But it's much more difficult to withdraw a guilty (or no contest) plea after sentencing. For instance, a guilty or no contest plea may be withdrawn after sentencing "only on direct appeal or collateral attack," according to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (Rule 11, scroll to page 5).
When You May Withdraw a Guilty Plea After Sentencing
After a defendant who has plead guilty has been sentenced, courts typically will not allow a withdrawal of the plea unless there was some kind of injustice involved, as is illustrated in the introduction. If made in a timely manner, courts generally will allow plea withdrawals after sentencing for the following conditions (this is not an exhaustive list):
- Defendant was denied effective assistance of legal counsel, as guaranteed by law.
- The plea was not entered by the defendant or anyone authorized to act on their behalf.
- Plea was not made voluntarily, or was entered without knowledge of the charge or sentence.
- Defendant did not receive the concessions agreed to in the plea deal.
- Defendant entered a guilty plea under the judge-approved condition that it could be withdrawn if the court rejected the agreed-upon conditions of the plea.
- Defendant entered a guilty as the result of promises or threats made off-the-record (assuming they can be proven).
It's simply not enough to claim dissatisfaction with the outcome of the sentencing hearing, assuming it didn't result in a miscarriage of justice. But even without the defendant's request, a judge is required to set aside a guilty plea when there is strong evidence (perhaps latent DNA test results) of the defendant's innocence.
Questions About Withdrawing a Guilty Plea? Ask an Attorney
Facts aside, strategy really matters when you are defending against criminal charges, and there are situations where withdrawing a guilty plea after sentencing is the only way to ensure your rights are protected. If you need legal representation or just a second opinion, consider consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.