Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Plea Circus

United States v. Carreto, No. 06-2295-cr (2d Cir. October 8, 2009)(Parker, Livingson, CJJ, Chin, DJ)

Three defendants were charged with various offenses relating to a scheme in which young women were smuggled into the United States from Mexico and forced to engage in prostitution. Soon after they were indicted, the government offered a “global” plea agreement with a February 18, 2005, deadline. Two days before the deadline, the district court had a conference to address whether the defendants would accept the plea. At that point, they were still undecided. The next day, the defendants rejected the offer and the government revoked it. The court set an April trial date.

On the scheduled date, the court selected and empaneled a jury. Just as the trial was about to commence, however, the defendants indicated that they were ready to plead guilty to the entire indictment without an agreement. The court closely examined the defendants and their attorneys about whether they understood the implication of their pleas. Each defendant expressed satisfaction with his attorney – one of them had previously repeatedly asked for a change of counsel – and read aloud a statement acknowledging his guilt.

About one year later, the defendants appeared for sentencing, but had by then filed pro se motions to withdraw their pleas. The motions alleged that the defendants had not been adequately advised of their right to testify at trial, the court did not verify that the pleas were voluntary, and that their lawyers were ineffective in failing to obtain documents from Mexico. As to this last point, the attorneys told the court that they had just learned of potentially exculpatory transcripts from a Mexican trial in which the victims had testified.

The district court denied the motions, and the circuit found no abuse of discretion. The defendants did not assert their innocence in their plea withdrawal motions, did not move to withdraw their pleas until a year after they had been entered, and the government would have been prejudiced by a withdrawal after more than a year’s delay. More generally, the defendants did not show a “fair and just reason” for withdrawing their pleas. Even the Mexican transcripts did not “alter the fact that [the] defendants had knowingly and voluntarily pled guilty to the charges against them.” The Mexican trial took place before the victims came to the United States and thus would not have “significantly undermined” the defendants’ admissions.

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