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Appeals court says judge erred on pleas

Tuesday, December 25, 2012
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— An Appellate Court found State Supreme Court Justice Felix Catena of Montgomery County abused his discretion when he refused to allow a man to withdraw pleas to crimes for which he was never charged.

The Appellate Court vacated Catena’s sentencing of Frank Bartlett Jr. and sent his case back to Montgomery County Court for action. Catena sentenced Bartlett to two years in state prison in May.

According to the Appellate Court, Bartlett appeared before Catena and admitted to violating his probation by committing criminal contempt and criminal mischief.

However, Bartlett later tried to withdraw the plea when he realized he misunderstood the date when the crimes were committed and that, in fact, he had never been charged in any court with those crimes.

After an inquiry, Catena denied Bartlett’s application and proceeded to sentence him to state prison. Courts have ruled that a judge has the discretion to allow a person to withdraw a plea based on evidence of innocence, fraud or mistake.

The Appellate Court in reversing Bartlett’s sentence found he had raised questions as to his innocence of the major probation violations and that his admission to the crimes was a mistake.

Catena stated the situation had become confusing and ordered a transcript of the plea statement, but “for some reason that [transcript copy] did not occur,” according to the Appellate Court ruling.

At the May sentencing, Catena incorrectly recalled his questions to Bartlett about his plea statement and Bartlett’s answers, court papers said. The court further said Catena’s questioning was vague and that his questions may have confused Bartlett into making admissions to actions that did not violate the law or his probation.

“Due to this confusion on the record, including the court’s own inaccurate recollection of the [plea statement], county court abused its discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to withdraw his plea without holding a hearing,” the Appellate Court said.

 
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