- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—A recent state Supreme Court decision is expected to make it more difficult for a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea before sentencing.

“The law is still the same — it’s just been tweaked,” Armstrong County President Judge Kenneth Valasek said.

The June 15 court decision is rooted in two cases: a sexual assault on children in Philadelphia and a homicide in Chester County. Both defendants attempted to withdraw those pleas before their sentencing hearings.

After reviewing both cases, Supreme Court judges found that a “bare assertion of innocence is not, in and of itself, a sufficient reason to require a court to grant a request to withdraw a guilty plea.”

Armstrong County District Attorney Scott Andreassi said that up until now, all a defendant had to do was profess innocence and the court was obligated to go along with their request to withdraw their plea. Now, defendants have to demonstrate why a withdrawal is merited.

“The court is saying you can’t just change your mind at the last minute,” Andreassi said.

Both he and Judge Valasek agree that the change will benefit the victims of crime by reducing the pain that comes when a case thought over is allowed to be reopened.

But defense attorney Charles Pascal of Leechburg said the cases on which the court based its decision were not typical, and the ruling creates unanswered questions. He referred to a line in the decision that says “a defendant’s innocence claim must be at least plausible to demonstrate, in and of itself, a fair and just reason for presentence withdrawal of a plea.”

“It’s too vague,” Pascal said. “We don’t know what standard we’re operating under and what we’re supposed to be showing.”

He also said that it’s unclear whether the decision focuses on plea withdrawals that happen immediately before sentencing.

“If you wait until sentencing, it seems less favorable than if you do it in a motion about a month ahead,” he said.

Pascal anticipates more cases will go through appellate court.

“It would be helpful to have some sort of guidance,” he said.

Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or [email protected]


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