ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE
Caroline B. Briggs Jeffrey A. Modisett
Flora, Indiana Attorney General of Indiana
Andrew L. Hedges
Deputy Attorney General
SUPREME COURT OF INDIANA
Robert W. Weatherford, Sr., ) ) Appellant (Defendant Below ), ) ) v. ) Cause No. 48S00-9602-CR-149 ) State of Indiana, ) ) Appellee (Plaintiff Below ). )
SHEPARD, Chief Justice.
Appellant Robert W. Weatherford, Sr., appeals the trial court's denial of his motion to withdraw his sentencing agreement.
procedure. (R. at 43.)
The judge then read the clauses of the agreement. Weatherford
verbally acknowledged that he had read each term and understood it.
(R. at 42-56.) The court advised Weatherford that it could either
accept or reject the sentencing agreement, but that if it accepted
the agreement it would be bound by it. (R. at 44.) Weatherford
stated that he believed the sentencing agreement was in his best
interest and acknowledged that he was satisfied with the
performance of his defense. (R. at 50.) He stated that he
understood that he was waiving all his rights to appeal the
(R. at 49-50.) The court advised Weatherford that
either the court or the jury would have to find the existence of an
aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt before imposing
a sentence of life without parole. (R. at 52-54.) Weatherford
stated that he understood his right to present mitigation evidence,
and voluntarily waived that right. (R. at 55.) He also
acknowledged that he received no promises or inducements to enter
into the sentencing agreement. (R. at 51.)
On November 13, 1995, Weatherford filed a motion to withdraw his sentencing agreement, arguing primarily that he had not
knowingly and voluntarily entered into the agreement. (R. at 30-
36.) Following a hearing on the motion, on November 15, 1995, the
trial court denied the motion to withdraw the sentencing agreement
and, in accordance with the terms of the agreement, sentenced
Weatherford to life without parole.See footnote
(R. at 177-78.)
After entry of a plea of guilty, or guilty but mentally ill at the time of the crime, but before the imposition of sentence, the court may allow the defendant by motion to withdraw his plea of guilty . . . for any fair and just reason unless the state has been substantially prejudiced by reliance upon the defendant's plea. . . . The ruling of the court on the motion shall be reviewable on appeal only for an abuse of discretion.[See footnote 5 ] However, the court shall allow the defendant to withdraw his plea . . . whenever the defendant proves that withdrawal of the plea is necessary to correct a manifest injustice.
Ind. Code Ann. § 35-35-1-4(b) (West 1998). We have interpreted
this statute to require a trial court to grant such a request:
only if the defendant proves that withdrawal of the plea "is necessary to correct a manifest injustice." The court must deny a motion to withdraw a guilty plea if the withdrawal would result in substantial prejudice to the State. Except under these polar circumstances, disposition of the petition is at the discretion of the trial court.
"Manifest injustice" and "substantial prejudice" are necessarily imprecise standards, and an appellant seeking to overturn a trial court's decision has faced a high hurdle under the current statute and its predecessors. The trial court's ruling on a motion to withdraw a guilty plea arrives in this Court with a presumption in favor of the ruling.
Coomer v. State, 652 N.E.2d 60, 61-62 (Ind. 1995) (citations
On its face, section 35-35-1-4(b) does not apply to sentencing agreements tendered after a jury has found a defendant guilty. Nevertheless, the standards imbedded in the statute seem
appropriate for the situation. The primary objectives--justice and
judicial economy--are at work in both instances. Therefore, trial
court rulings on motions to withdraw plea and sentencing agreements
arrive in this Court with the same presumption of validity, and
will be reviewed only for an abuse of discretion. As we previously
stated, abuse of discretion will only be found as to plea and
sentencing agreements when the failure of the trial court to grant
the motion would result in either a manifest injustice to the
or in substantial prejudice to the State.
An appellant of an adverse decision on a motion to withdraw must prove the court abused its discretion by a preponderance of the evidence. Ind. Code Ann. § 35-35-1-4(e) (West 1998). In evaluating a defendant's arguments on this point, "[w]e will not disturb the trial court's ruling where it was based on conflicting evidence." Smith v. State, 596 N.E.2d 257, 258 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992).
Weatherford made several arguments supporting his request to
withdraw his sentencing agreement. (R. at 30-38.) On appeal, he
offers three: 1) that his plea was made involuntary and unknowing
by the trial court's failure to advise him of his rights; 2) that
his plea was invalid because it lacked a factual basis; 3) that
"jury irregularities" unknown to him at the time the agreement was
made rendered his plea unknowing and involuntary.
A. Failure to Advise of Rights and Voluntariness of Plea. In
the motion to withdraw, Weatherford argued that his sentencing
agreement was made unknowingly and involuntarily because the trial
court had neither advised him of his rights before accepting the
plea, as required by Indiana Code section 35-35-1-2,See footnote
Br. at 6), or determined that the agreement was made voluntarily,
as required by Indiana Code section 35-35-1-3(a), (Appellant's Br.
Facially, these sections apply only to pleas of guilty or guilty but mentally ill. See Ind. Code Ann. § 35-35-1-2 (West 1998); Ind. Code Ann. § 35-35-1-3 (West 1998). Weatherford in effect argues that the formal requirements imposed by section 35-
35-1-2 when accepting guilty pleas should apply when accepting
sentencing agreements.See footnote
Unlike the procedures section 35-35-1-4(b)
discussed above, little reason exists for wholesale application of
the requirements of section 35-35-1-2 to sentencing agreements. A
defendant like Weatherford for example, who has already been
convicted, need not be informed that by entering into a sentencing
agreement he waives his rights to "a public and speedy trial by
jury," Ind. Code Ann. § 35-35-1-2(a)(2)(A) (West 1998), or that he
waives his right to "require the state to prove his guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt at a trial at which the defendant may not be
compelled to testify against himself," Ind. Code Ann. § 35-35-1-
2(a)(2)(D) (West 1998).
To be sure, when it appears to the trial judge that a
sentencing agreement is the product of coercion or ignorance, the
court would likely reach the conclusion that the agreement should
be set aside to prevent a "manifest injustice." It might also
decide that this was a "fair and just reason" to permit withdrawal.
In Weatherford's case, however, the trial court was well justified in refusing to set aside the agreement on these grounds. The record of the earlier proceeding reflected that some care had
been taken. After inviting counsel's advice on how to proceed, the
judge told the parties he intended to read the terms of the
agreement aloud, and ask Weatherford whether he had read and
understood them. (R. at 42-43.) Defense counsel responded, "Mr.
Weatherford said that would be fine with him," (R. at 43), and
Weatherford himself responded, "That is fine with me your Honor,"
(Id.). The judge then read the terms, and Weatherford responded
that he had read and understood them all. (R. at 43-55.) At one
point, Weatherford's counsel stopped the judge specifically to note
that Weatherford did not admit that he personally shot the victim.
(R. at 52.) When asked if he voluntarily waived his right to
present mitigation evidence, Weatherford responded, "Yes, I
understand it and I agree with it." (R. at 55.) Throughout the
questioning, Weatherford was apparently attentive and responsive.
Weatherford's attempt to show that his sentencing agreement
was involuntary and unknowing is insufficient to demonstrate that
withdrawal of the agreement was necessary to correct a manifest
injustice. The court's method of inquiry seems appropriate. It
did not abuse its discretion in denying Weatherford's motion on
those grounds.See footnote
B. Not the Triggerman. Weatherford argues that the trial
court should not have accepted his guilty plea because he
maintained at the sentencing agreement hearing that he was not the
triggerman in the murder.See footnote
Weatherford cites cases holding that
a defendant may not plead guilty and maintain his innocence
simultaneously, such as Patton v. State, 517 N.E.2d 374 (Ind.
1987), and Ross v. State, 456 N.E.2d 420 (Ind. 1983).
Of course, one may still be guilty of murder without actually committing the act of deadly force. See, e.g., Taylor v. State, 676 N.E.2d 1044, 1047 (Ind. 1997). Weatherford admitted in the agreement that "the victim . . . was a person known by him to be a witness against him and the murder was committed with the intent to prevent [the victim] from testifying against Defendant . . . ." (R. at 28.) Weatherford acknowledged in open court that he had
read and understood this portion of the agreement. (R. at 45-46.)
These were hardly grounds demonstrating that withdrawal of the
agreement was necessary to prevent a manifest injustice.
C. Jury Irregularities. Weatherford asked the trial court to
grant his motion to withdraw because of alleged "jury
irregularities." (Appellant's Br. at 24.) According to
Weatherford, the jurors feared for their lives during his trial, a
fact he did not discover until after sentencing. Weatherford
raised these claims in his motion to withdraw his sentencing
agreement. (R. at 34-35.) Thus, argues Weatherford, the trial
court abused its discretion by denying his motion to withdraw
despite these known "irregularities." (Id. at 25.)
Weatherford apparently bases his arguments on a local
newspaper article describing a fire alarm at the juror's motel, and
anonymous jurors' claims of fear. (Appellant's Br. at 25; Appendix
to Appellant's Br. at 10.) Weatherford can point to no other
"evidence" of juror irregularities other than the newspaper article
and his own assertions. The article and Weatherford's contentions,
standing alone, are not a cogent argument as required by Indiana
Appellate Rule 8.3(A)(7), nor are they sufficient to overcome the
presumption of validity afforded the trial court's ruling on the
motion to withdraw.
Dickson, Sullivan, Selby, and Boehm, JJ., concur.
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