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Washington v. Rafferty

June 22, 1987


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, (D.C. Civil No. 85-1607).

Weis, Becker, and Maris, Circuit Judges.

Author: Weis


WEIS, Circuit Judge

Finding that the state failed to abide by the terms of a plea bargain, the district court granted a writ of habeas corpus. The issue before us is whether the prosecutor had agreed that he would not make a recommendation on sentencing to the trial court. We conclude that inconsistencies between a written agreement signed by defendant and the prosecutor's oral representation at entry of the plea were resolved by the trial judge's explanation during the guilty plea colloquy. For that reason, we find no breach of the plea bargain and will vacate the order granting the writ.

Petitioner is a state prisoner who negotiated a plea bargain on charges arising from the stabbing death of Elbert Watson. On May 20, 1980, as a prelude to the entry of his guilty plea, defendant and his lawyer, an assistant public defender, both signed a form prepared by the Superior Court of New Jersey. The form provided spaces for listing the number of counts of the indictment, nature of the offense, maximum penalties, and terms of any plea bargain. The form contained printed instructions to "write out the specific sentence recommendation you were promised [by the prosecution]." In the space following this instruction was handwritten "prosecutor waives request for extended term (possible life sentence); maximum to be faced is 30 years with possible 15 year minimum. Prosecutor reserves right to speak at sentencing."

The next day, May 21, 1980, defendant and his counsel appeared before a state trial judge to enter a guilty plea in accordance with the bargain. The prosecutor opened the proceedings by stating the terms of the plea agreement. In return for a plead of guilty to one count, "the State would make no recommendation as to sentencing [on that conviction], other than the State would waive its right to ask for an extended term at the time of sentencing, but the State would reserve its right to comment at the time of sentencing." In addition, the state would seek dismissal of the second count.

The public defender replied that "the Prosecutor has accurately portrayed to the court the nature and substance of our plea agreement. I filled out the Statement by Defendant with Mr. Washington this morning and [have] gone over it with him . . .I'm satisfied that he understands the nature and substance of the plea agreement."

The trial court then engaged in a lengthy colloquy with defendant, discussing his signed statement, his understanding of the question, his narration of the details of the crime and his relationship with the victim. The judge also reviewed a statement by an eyewitness and, finally, questioned defendant about his waiver of the right to trial. After this extensive dialogue on the record, the trial judge said:

"Your attorney advises me that she has made an agreement with the Prosecutor that in return for your guilty plea to the first count of this indictment, which charges murder, the Prosecutor is going to ask the Court to dismiss the second count . . . The prosecutor is going to waive his right to move before the Court for an extended term of imprisonment for you, and is going to make no recommendation today with respect to what your sentence should be, but he has reserved the right to speak at the time of your sentence and to make a recommendation to the court at that time with respect to what your sentence should be. Do you understand all that?"

Defendant replied, "Yes, sir."

The judge continued, "And do you understand, that under the terms of that agreement, the Court could sentence you to as much as thirty years in prison for this offense?" Defendant responded, "Yes, I do, Your Honor."

Two weeks later, the prosecutor sent a letter to the trial judge outlining the details of the crime and the defendant's previous criminal record. The prosecutor closed by asking the court to impose a thirty-year sentence with a parole minimum of fifteen years. A copy sent to defense counsel sparked a four-page reply on July 11, 1980, pointing out various mitigating circumstances, including provocation. The letter concluded with an assertion that a term of years substantially less that "the maximum term available" would be a just sentence.

The defense attorney's letter to the judge made no reference to any agreement by the state to withhold a recommendation on sentence, nor did she object to the prosecutor's letter on that basis. A copy of the ...

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