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decided: March 16, 1973.


Appeal from judgment of sentence of Court of Common Pleas of Chester County, May T., 1970, No. 21, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Efrain Santos.


John J. Duffy, for appellant.

R. Samuel McMichael, Assistant District Attorney, with him William H. Lamb, District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

Jones, C. J., Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Nix.

Author: Nix

[ 450 Pa. Page 493]

The sole question for decision in this appeal is whether the trial court erred in denying appellant's motion to withdraw his plea of guilty.

The facts relevant to the motion to withdraw may be summarized as follows: In May, 1970, appellant, Efrain Santos, was charged with murder. In October of the same year, after meeting with the district attorney and his own counsel, the appellant entered a plea of guilty to voluntary manslaughter which was accepted by the trial court after a determination that Santos possessed both a familiarity with the English language*fn1 and an awareness of the consequences of his plea. Sentencing was deferred pending a presentence investigation.

Prior to the subsequent hearing a petition for leave to withdraw the plea was filed pursuant to Pa. R. Crim. P. 320,*fn2 in which appellant alleged that although the term "voluntary" was used by the court to describe the charge, he thought he was pleading guilty to the crime

[ 450 Pa. Page 494]

    of involuntary manslaughter. Appellant attributes his mistaken impression to either a breakdown in verbal communications due to his limited command of the English language or a misunderstanding of the legal terminology employed by counsel and the court. He asserts that he realized the mistake when he read a newspaper account of the entry of his plea of guilty to the crime of voluntary manslaughter. At the hearing on his motion to withdraw the plea, the appellant consistently maintained that he thought he had pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Nevertheless, the trial court denied his motion and sentenced him to a term of six to twelve years imprisonment. This appeal followed.

We agree with the Commonwealth's general proposition that the grant or refusal of an application for leave to withdraw a guilty plea is within the sound discretion of the trial court. See Commonwealth v. Culbreath, 439 Pa. 21, 264 A.2d 643 (1970); Commonwealth v. Scoleri, 415 Pa. 218, 202 A.2d 521 (1964). However, since guilty pleas involve the simultaneous waiver of so many constitutional rights,*fn3 we have recently emphasized "that a request [to withdraw] made before sentencing . . . should be liberally allowed." Commonwealth v. Forbes, 450 Pa. 185, 190, 299 A.2d 268, 271 (1973).

The trial courts in exercising their discretion must recognize that "'[b]efore judgment, the courts should

[ 450 Pa. Page 495]

    show solicitude for a defendant who wishes to undo a waiver of all the constitutional rights that surround the right to trial -- perhaps the most devastating waiver possible under our Constitution.'" Commonwealth v. Neely, 449 Pa. 3, 6, 295 A.2d 75, 76 (1972) (concurring opinion, quoting Dukes v. Warden, Connecticut State Prison, 406 U.S. 250, 258 (1972) (concurring opinion)).

Federal courts have clearly adopted this approach of construing a request to withdraw a guilty plea liberally in favor of the accused and have established that the test to be applied where the motion to withdraw is made before the imposition of sentence is fairness and justice. United States v. Stayton, 408 F. 2d 559, 561 (3d Cir. 1969). See also, United States ex rel. Culbreath v. Rundle, 466 F. 2d 730 (3d Cir. 1972); Dorton v. United States, 447 F. 2d 401 (10th Cir. 1971); Woodward v. United States, 426 F. 2d 959 (3d Cir. 1970); United States v. Young, 424 F. 2d 1276 (3d Cir. 1970); Kadwell v. United States, 315 F. 2d 667 (9th Cir. 1963); F. R. Crim. P. 32(d); ABA Project on Minimum Standards for Criminal Justice, Standards Relating to Pleas of Guilty ยง 2.1(b) (Approved Draft, 1968).*fn4

In applying the standard of fairness and justice to the facts of the instant case, we must conclude that the trial court on this record should have permitted the appellant to withdraw his guilty plea. Here, notwithstanding the trial court's prior explanation of voluntary manslaughter and the consequences of a guilty

[ 450 Pa. Page 496]

    plea, the appellant subsequently testified that he was mistaken as to the charge to which he had entered a plea. A trial court, under these circumstances, abuses its discretion by not allowing a guilty plea to be freely withdrawn prior to sentencing when the Commonwealth would not be substantially prejudiced by the plea withdrawal.*fn5 Clearly, we must vigilantly protect an individual's right to a trial. As we noted in Commonwealth v. Forbes, 450 Pa. 185, 191, 299 A.2d 286, 271 (1973), quoting United States v. Young, 424 F. 2d 1276, 1279 (3d Cir. 1970): "'The liberal rule for withdrawal of a guilty plea before sentence is consistent with the efficient administration of criminal justice. It reduces the number of appeals contesting the "knowing and voluntariness" of a guilty plea, and avoids the difficulties of disentangling such claims. It also ensures that a defendant is not denied a right to trial by jury unless he clearly waives it.'"

It should be noted that there is a heavier burden upon a defendant who wishes to withdraw his plea after the imposition of sentence. See, Woodward v. United States, 426 F. 2d 959 (3d Cir. 1970); United States v. Stayton, 408 F. 2d 559 (3d Cir. 1969); Kadwell v. United States, 315 F. 2d 667 (9th Cir. 1963).*fn6 See also Com. v. Starr, 450 Pa. 485, 301 A.2d 592 (1973).

[ 450 Pa. Page 497]

The judgment of sentence is reversed and the case is remanded with instructions to allow appellant to withdraw the plea of guilty.


Judgment of sentence reversed and case remanded with instructions.

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