The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized.)
ALBIN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
In this appeal, the Court determines whether defendant satisfied the factors set forth in State v. Slater, 198 N.J. 145 (2009), for withdrawal of his guilty plea prior to sentencing.
In September 2005, defendant was charged with murder and weapons offenses for the shooting death of Christian Natal. In March 2007, defendant pled guilty to first-degree aggravated manslaughter -- a lesser-included offense to murder -- in exchange for dismissal of the murder count and other charges. At the plea hearing, defendant admitted that he and Natal had a dispute, he shot Natal at close range, and Natal died. Also, defendant's attorney stated: "I would stipulate that it's circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life." Shortly after the plea hearing, a probation officer interviewed defendant to prepare the presentence investigation report. During the interview, defendant stated that he had been robbed by Natal more than once, so he armed himself with a gun for protection. Defendant further stated that on the day in question, Natal "pulled out a knife on him," defendant backed up while Natal was swinging his knife, and, at a point when defendant was leaning on a car, he shot Natal in "self-defense." Nothing in the presentence report, which included the State's version of events, directly contradicted that account. Indeed, at the scene, police found a box cutter in Natal's hand.
Before sentencing, defendant moved to withdraw his guilty plea, asserting that he had a viable affirmative defense of self-defense. The court placed defendant under oath and engaged in colloquy with him. Defendant generally explained that Natal came at him "real close" with a knife in his hand; that as he backed up, there was "nowhere [he] could go" to retreat because they were "in between cars"; and that his "back was on the car" and he pulled a gun from his pocket, but he did not intend to kill Natal. The court did not accept defendant's asserted justification for the use of deadly force and denied his motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The Appellate Division affirmed. The Court granted defendant's petition for certification. 207 N.J. 188 (2011).
HELD: The trial court mistakenly exercised its discretion and should have allowed defendant to withdraw his guilty plea in the interests of justice under the factors set forth in Slater. Defendant asserted a colorable claim of innocence based on a plausible defense of self-defense; there would not have been undue delay or prejudice had the case proceeded to trial; and the factual issues in dispute identified by the trial court should have been decided by a jury.
1. When a motion to withdraw a guilty plea is made before sentencing, a "defendant shall be permitted to withdraw" the plea if "the interests of justice would not be served by effectuating the [plea] agreement." R. 3:9-3(e). Courts are to exercise their discretion liberally to allow presentence plea withdrawals, but that does not mean an abdication of all discretion. Slater identified four factors that courts should balance in deciding a motion to withdraw a plea: (1) whether the defendant has asserted a colorable claim of innocence; (2) the nature and strength of the reasons for withdrawal; (3) the existence of a plea bargain; and (4) whether withdrawal would result in unfair prejudice to the State or unfair advantage to the accused. (pp. 13-15)
2. A colorable claim of innocence is one that rests on plausible facts that would lead a reasonable factfinder to determine the claim is meritorious. The motion judge need not be convinced that it is a winning argument because legitimate factual disputes must be resolved by the jury. The second Slater factor may be satisfied by a "plausible showing of a valid defense against the charges" and a credible explanation for why a legitimate defense was overlooked at the plea hearing. A court should evaluate the validity of the asserted reasons with realism, but not with skepticism, because the ultimate goal is to ensure that legitimate disputes about guilt or innocence are decided by a jury. The third factor receives the least weight in the analysis because most criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains. Turning to the fourth factor, the critical inquiry is whether the passage of time has hampered the State's ability to present important evidence. On appellate review, the issue is whether the trial court properly exercised its discretion at the time it denied the withdrawal motion. (pp. 15-17)
3. In this case, defendant satisfied the first Slater factor by presenting a colorable claim of innocence. At the plea hearing, he admitted to shooting Natal at close range, but it was defense counsel who stated that he -- counsel --stipulated that the shooting was under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life. Typically, courts must be satisfied from the defendant himself that he committed the acts which constitute the crime. Nothing defendant said at the plea hearing was inconsistent with his statements to the probation officer or his sworn testimony at the plea-withdrawal hearing. On both of those latter occasions, defendant stated that Natal, who had robbed him in the past, had come at him wielding a knife. At the plea-withdrawal hearing, defendant claimed that he backed up until he could no longer retreat and Natal had "a knife in his hand." Although the prosecutor indicated that defendant's account was "completely different than what the State's witnesses say," she made no specific representations and offered no written statements about precisely what they would say, and the "State's version of events" in the presentence report did not undermine defendant's self-defense claim. (pp. 18-20)
4. The trial court was dismissive of defendant's self-defense claim because Natal had a knife while defendant had a gun. A knife is a deadly weapon "readily capable of lethal use or of inflicting serious bodily injury." N.J.S.A. 2C:39-1(r). A jury could potentially find that defendant was justified in using deadly force provided he was not the initial aggressor and he "reasonably believe[d] that [deadly] force [was] necessary to protect himself against death or serious bodily harm." N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4(b)(2). The issue is not whether the trial court determines that defendant has a likelihood of winning on a claim of self-defense. The issue is whether defendant raised a colorable claim of innocence that should rightly have been decided by a jury. Here, as in Slater, defendant "presented specific, potentially plausible facts" of his innocence. (pp. 20-21)
5. The second Slater factor, defendant's reason for attempting to withdraw his plea, dovetails with his claim of innocence. As in Slater, defendant's account at the plea-withdrawal hearing found support in the record. He claimed that Natal attacked him with a knife, and the police found a box cutter in Natal's dead hand. In sum, defendant made a "plausible showing of a valid defense against the charges" and the failure to elicit a full factual basis from defendant's own lips is a credible reason why self-defense was overlooked during the plea hearing. (pp. 21-22)
6. Turning next to the fourth Slater factor, any prejudice to the State if the trial court had granted withdrawal of the plea must be measured as of the time of the plea-withdrawal hearing date. Here, defendant entered his plea on March 1, 2007; the presentence report detailing defendant's self-defense claim is dated April 18, 2007; defendant's original sentencing date was set for April 20, 2007; and the withdrawal motion was heard on October 5, 2007. The State made no assertion that, as of October 5, the passage of time had hampered its ability to present important evidence, and there has been no showing that defendant somehow gained an advantage during the interval between the entry of his plea and the plea-withdrawal hearing. Finally, the third Slater factor -- whether defendant's plea was part of a plea agreement -- must be viewed in light of the other three factors, all of which favor withdrawal of the plea. In this case, the third factor does not outweigh the other three factors. (pp. 22-23)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for proceedings consistent with the Court's opinion.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER; JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, HOENS, and PATTERSON; and JUDGE WEFING (temporarily assigned) join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion.
On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
JUSTICE ALBIN delivered the opinion of the Court.
We must determine whether the trial court erred by not allowing defendant Leroy Munroe to withdraw his guilty plea before sentence. The ultimate issue is whether withdrawal of the guilty plea would have been in the interests of justice. See R. 3:9-3(e).
Defendant pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter, admitting at his plea hearing that he shot and killed Christian Natal.
Shortly thereafter, defendant told the author of his presentence investigation report that he shot Natal because Natal attacked him with a knife. Before sentencing, defendant moved to withdraw his guilty plea, asserting that he acted in self-defense when he was backed up against a car by a knife-wielding Natal. The trial court did not accept defendant's asserted justification for the use of deadly force and rejected his plea-withdrawal motion. The Appellate Division affirmed.
We now reverse, finding that defendant satisfied the necessary factors set forth in State v. Slater, 198 N.J. 145, 157-58 (2009), for withdrawal of a guilty plea at the presentence stage. In particular, we conclude that defendant articulated a colorable claim of innocence based on a plausible defense and that there would not have been undue delay or prejudice had the case proceeded to trial. The factual issues in dispute identified by the trial court should have been decided by a jury. Accordingly, we remand to give defendant the opportunity for a jury trial.
In September 2005, defendant was charged in a Hudson County indictment with murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) or (2); two counts of third-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b); and two counts of second-degree possession of a handgun with the purpose to use it unlawfully against another, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a).
On March 1, 2007, defendant entered into a negotiated plea agreement with the State. Defendant agreed to plead guilty to a lesser-included offense to murder -- first-degree aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a)(1) -- in exchange for the State dismissing the murder count and other charges and capping the maximum sentence at twenty-years imprisonment, subject to the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2. That day, defendant appeared before a Superior Court judge, and the terms of the plea were placed on the record. In accordance with Rule 3:9-2, the trial court questioned the twenty-one-year-old defendant, under oath, to ensure that he was entering the guilty plea voluntarily and with a full understanding of his rights.
As necessary under Rule 3:9-2, the court also directed that defendant give a factual basis to support his plea to aggravated manslaughter. Defendant then engaged in the following colloquy with his counsel:
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Leroy, on May 13th of 2005 in the City of Jersey City and particularly at Delaware and Duncan Avenue[s] did you have an altercation with a gentleman by the name of Christian Natal (phonetic)? [DEFENDANT]: Yes.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: And as a result of that altercation -- and when I say altercation I mean a verbal dispute. Did you guys have a bit of a verbal discussion, a verbal disagreement --[DEFENDANT]: Yes. [DEFENSE COUNSEL]: -- on that day? And --and at some point on this day following the verbal altercation did you fire a handgun? [DEFENDANT]: Yes. [DEFENSE COUNSEL]: And as a result of firing that handgun did you shoot Christian Natal? [DEFENDANT]: Yes. [DEFENSE COUNSEL]: And later on was Christian pronounced dead by the EMS people? [DEFENDANT]: Yes. [DEFENSE COUNSEL]: And you knew that he was pronounced dead. Is that correct? [DEFENDANT]: Yes. [DEFENSE COUNSEL]: And when you discharged the weapon were you in close proximity to Christian? [DEFENDANT]: Yes. [DEFENSE COUNSEL]: And did you fire the weapon in his direction? [DEFENDANT]: Yes.
At that point, the prosecutor attempted to ask defendant a follow-up question, "I think that's -- you agree it's circumstances manifesting --," but instead defense counsel interjected, "Absolutely . . . I would stipulate that it's circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life.
It was close range." The court then indicated that it was satisfied that defendant had entered a knowing and voluntary guilty plea.*fn1 The court ...