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Guilty Plea May Be Withdrawn In Face of Colorable Defense

Guilty Plea May Be Withdrawn In Face of Colorable Defense

A defendant who presented a colorable claim of self defense before he was to be sentenced for aggravated manslaughter should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea, the New Jersey Supreme Court rules.
http://www.law.com/jsp/nj/PubArticleFriendlyNJ.jsp?id=1202561115839

Michael Booth

06-28-2012

A defendant who presented a colorable claim of self defense before he was to be sentenced for aggravated manslaughter should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

In a unanimous ruling, the court said judges should take greater care during plea hearings to hear the defendant explain what happened. “[T]he ultimate goal is to ensure that legitimate disputes about the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant are decided by a jury,” wrote Justice Barry Albin for the court in State v. Munroe, A-125-10.

Larry Munroe originally was charged with murder and related offenses in connection with the May 13, 2005, shooting death of Christian Natal, who Munroe said had robbed him on another occasion.

Two years later, Munroe agreed to plead guilty to a count of aggravated manslaughter. In exchange, the murder charge, which carried a life sentence, would be dropped, and he would serve a maximum of 17 years.

During the plea hearing, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Frederick Theemling Jr. asked Munroe a series of yes or no questions centering on whether he, in fact, did shoot Natal. Munroe answered in the affirmative.

But at sentencing, Munroe for the first time claimed that he acted in self defense and asked to be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial.

Munroe claimed that while he and Natal were arguing between two parked cars, Natal pulled a knife and pushed him against one of the cars. Munroe then shot Natal, allegedly in self-defense, because he had nowhere to run. Police investigating the shooting found a box cutter in Natal’s possession.

Theemling denied Munroe’s request, saying that he had voluntarily entered into the guilty plea. The Appellate Division agreed.

During the pendency of Munroe’s appeal, the court ruled in State v. Slater, 198 N.J. 145 (2009), that when reviewing requests to withdraw guilty pleas, judges should determine whether there is a colorable claim by analyzing its nature and strength, whether the original plea deal was just and whether allowing the request would unduly disadvantage the state and advantage the defendant.

Albin said that while Theemling did not have the benefit of Slater at the time, an analysis of those factors now indicates Munroe should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.

Munroe, he said, argued at the sentencing hearing that he was trapped between Natal and the car, but was not asked about those details when he pleaded guilty.

“Permitting a complete response from the defendant that elicits the underpinnings of the guilty plea may take a few more seconds or minutes,” Albin said. “Yet, in the long run, that approach may prove more beneficial and less time consuming because it is better to know then whether the defendant has a potentially viable defense and whether he is willing to waive it and enter a guilty plea.”

Albin noted that one reason Theemling rejected the self-defense argument was that Munroe was armed with a gun and Natal, seemingly, only with a knife. Albin pointed out that the state police reported in 2010 that 14 percent of murders and 23 percent of assaults were committed with a knife.

“Moreover, imperfect self-defense is applicable if the jury determines that defendant acted with an honest but unreasonable belief in the need to use deadly force,” he said. “Indeed, once self-defense is raised in a case, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant was not justified in using deadly force.”

Assistant Hudson County Prosecutor Lynne Seborowski, who argued against Munroe’s request to withdraw his plea, says her office is prepared to try the case, although she adds that she believes the ruling puts the prosecution at a disadvantage because of the time that has elapsed between the killing and now.

Says Munroe’s lawyer, Assistant Deputy Public Defender Frank Pugliese: “Mr. Munroe deserves his day in court and the Supreme Court has assured that he will have it. A jury will decide the facts of the case and determine whether a crime was committed.”

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