Argued: September 10, 2014.
Appeal from the judgment of the Superior Court at No. 1045 EDA 2011, Dated October 8, 2013, Vacating the Judgment of Sentence of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division, at Nos. CP-51-CR-0009652-2009 and CP-51-CR-0009653-2009, Dated November 30, 2010, and Remanding. 2013 PA Super 270, 78 A.3d 1120 (Pa. Super. 2013) .
For Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellant: Hugh J. Burns Jr., Esq., Daniel Francis Creedon IV Esq.
For Jose A. Carrasquillo, Appellee: Karl Baker, Esq., Courtney Brooke Kirschner, Esq., Defender Association of Philadelphia.
CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, STEVENS, JJ. MR. CHIEF JUSTICE SAYLOR. Former Chief Justice Castille and former Justice McCaffery did not participate in the decision of this case. Messrs. Justice Eakin and Baer, Madame Justice Todd and Mr. Justice Stevens join the opinion. Mr. Justice Stevens files a concurring opinion in which Mr. Justice Baer joins.
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE SAYLOR
In this appeal, we consider the criteria governing the disposition of a presentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea. Our decision turns on the conclusion that a bare assertion of innocence is not, in and of itself, a sufficient reason to require a court to grant such a request.
On the morning of June 1, 2009, two girls were sexually assaulted by the same man. The first victim, sixteen-year-old C.J., escaped after offensive touching. Eleven-year-old N.O., however, was threatened and lured into an alleyway, where she was brutally raped and sustained severe injuries requiring hospitalization and surgery.
Police investigated and arrested Appellee, Jose A. Carrasquillo, who made inculpatory statements during interrogation. Charges were lodged in two separate criminal proceedings, which were later consolidated for trial. After a psychiatric evaluation confirmed that Appellee was competent to be tried, he decided to enter open guilty pleas to various sexual offenses, including rape, as well as other crimes.
At the plea colloquy, the Commonwealth proffered that the evidence against Appellee included his own statements, identification testimony from both victims, video surveillance recordings apparently showing Appellee with or in the vicinity of each victim close in time to the assaults, and DNA and fingerprint evidence linking Appellee to the rape of N.O. See N.T., Aug. 11, 2010, at 32-45.
The plea court advised Appellee of his pertinent constitutional rights and the implications of waiver. After further explaining that Appellee faced possible sentences of life and nine years' imprisonment, respectively, in the cases relating to N.O. and C.J., the court accepted the pleas and entered verdicts. Appellee was also informed that he could seek to withdraw his guilty plea at any time before sentencing and that the court " would have to consider whether or not the reasons for you doing so are fair and necessary, fair and appropriate, compared to the prejudice that that might cause to the Commonwealth's case and to their witnesses, and particularly in this case to child witnesses." Id. at 63. See generally Commonwealth v. Forbes, 450 Pa. 185, 190, 299 A.2d 268, 271 (1973).
Three and one-half months later, the court conducted a sentencing hearing. The prosecutor read into evidence a report prepared for the Sexual Offenders Assessment Board, which described Appellee's multiple sexually violent episodes and concluded that Appellee was a sexually violent predator for the purposes of Megan's Law. See 42 Pa.C.S. § § 9794(c), 9795.4(b) (superseded). The report portrayed Appellee as a cruel assailant, who " was sexually aroused by acts of violence, domination, or threats upon the victims" and for whom self-reported rage and anger were secondary motivators. N.T., Nov. 30, 2010, at 49-66. In addition, N.O., her parents, grandmother, teacher, and physician testified to the severe physical and emotional trauma that N.O. had suffered. Among other things, the witnesses stated that memories of the brutal attack continued to affect N.O.'s emotional and psychological well-being. See id. at 73-75, 86-88. In mitigation, Appellee offered expert testimony describing neuropsychological impairment affecting his behavior, and a letter from his paternal aunt requesting leniency. See id. at 90-122.
After the defense rested, Appellee explained in allocution that he had pled guilty to spare N.O. suffering, and he therefore expressed surprise at his portrayal during the sentencing hearing. Appellee also stated that he had entered his plea because, absent a polygraph examination, his account would not have been believed and he would not have received a fair trial. He continued to discuss scenarios unrelated to the sexual assault of N.O., in which the CIA purportedly had victimized him by seeking to employ him as an assassin abroad, and where a serpent assertedly appeared and " [t]he Antichrist, he came out of me[.]" See id. at 123. Claiming that he did not commit the assault against N.O. and had been framed, Appellee insisted that a polygraph test would prove his innocence and asked to withdraw his guilty plea. See id. at 122-24.
The prosecutor responded that permitting Appellee to withdraw his guilty plea would prejudice the Commonwealth, because N.O. had a sense of closure knowing that she did not have to testify; forcing her to testify and " re-open old wounds . . . would be extremely prejudicial to her well-being." Id. at 129.
The sentencing court denied the motion to withdraw. Once again, Appellee requested an investigation and a polygraph, saying " [i]f not, you go ahead and give me life." Id. at 133. Sentencing proceeded, and Appellee received an aggregate term of incarceration of 30 to 66 years.
Upon Appellee's appeal, the sentencing court issued an opinion setting forth its rationale. See Commonwealth v. Carrasquillo, Nos. CP-51-CR-0009652-2009 & CP-51-CR-0009653-2009, slip op. at 9 (C.P. Phila. Dec. 29, 2011). Initially, the court reiterated that the grant or denial of a motion to withdraw is discretionary in
the trial court at any time before sentence imposition and that defendants have no absolute right to the requested relief. See id. (citing Pa.R.Crim.P. 591(A)); see also Forbes, 450 Pa. at 190, 299 A.2d at 271; accord Commonwealth v. Randolph, 553 Pa. 224, 228-29, 718 A.2d 1242, 1244 (1998). The court recognized, however, the directive of this Court that such discretion should be exercised liberally in defendants' favor. See Forbes, 450 Pa. at 190, 299 A.2d at 271; accord Commonwealth v. Santos, 450 Pa. 492, 494-95, 301 A.2d 829, 830 (1973) (" The trial courts in exercising their discretion must recognize that 'before judgment, the court should show solicitude for a defendant who wishes to undo a waiver of all constitutional rights that surround the right to trial -- perhaps the most devastating waiver possible under our Constitution.'" (quoting, indirectly, Dukes v. Warden, Conn. State Prison, 406 U.S. 250, 258, 92 S.Ct. 1551, 1555, 32 L.Ed.2d 45 (1972) (Stewart, J., concurring))).
Such principles, the court noted, were distilled by this Court in Forbes into the governing requirement that a presentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea should be granted if supported by a fair and just reason and substantial prejudice will not inure to the Commonwealth. See Forbes, 450 Pa. at 190-91, 299 A.2d at 271 (referencing various federal authorities and secondary materials). Nevertheless, in the sentencing court's view, denial is appropriate where the reasons offered by a defendant are belied by the record. See Carrasquillo, Nos. ...