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Plea not coerced by judge’s comments

A district court judge’s encouragement to a defendant to “think carefully” before rejecting a plea deal did not mean the defendant could say his plea was coerced, when he later suffered buyer’s remorse and wanted to withdraw his plea.

Francis Davis risked a mandatory minimum 50-year sentence if he went to trial on robbery and firearm charges, but the government and Davis’ lawyer negotiated a deal calling for the government to recommend a 20-year sentence. Davis initially accepted, but balked on the morning of the plea hearing.

As part of the Rule 11 colloquy, Richmond U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney wanted to make sure Davis had given the matter careful consideration. In its unpublished decision upholding Gibney’s rejection of the withdrawal motion, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recounted parts of the colloquy.

Gibney told Davis that if he was convicted of both offenses, he was “going to jail, at a minimum, for 50 years,” and the government was offering him “a way to get out of that through whatever sort of a plea bargain they offered you.

“It looks like they have a lot of witnesses,” Gibney observed, but he told Davis he and his lawyer needed “to make that choice. But – I probably have a reputation as a light sentencer – but I will tell you, there is nothing I can do about those, about that 50-year sentence. … And maybe they really don’t have good witnesses. But I sort of doubt that. So, you know, you have got some exposure here. What you do about that exposure is entirely up to you.”

The court suggested that with a 50-year sentence, the 35-year-old Davis “would die in jail probably.” He gave Davis an hour to consult with counsel, and Davis came back with a plea.

Two months later, Davis filed a pro se motion to withdraw his guilty plea, saying the court’s advice that he “think about” his decision persuaded him to accept the plea. The court denied the motion to withdraw the plea and ultimately sentenced Davis to the recommended 20-year sentence.

On appeal, Davis argued the trial judge abused his discretion in denying the withdrawal motion and committed plain error by not recusing himself from hearing the motion.

It was the district court’s judicial duty to ensure that Davis’ plea was knowing and voluntary, wrote Judge James A. Wynn Jr. in U.S. v. Davis. The lower court “engaged Davis to ensure that he understood the consequences of pleading versus going to trial in the context of the potential penalties Davis faced.”

Although “the district court judge may have been overly cautious in his efforts to ensure Davis made a fully informed decision, those efforts did not amount to coercion” of the plea, Wynn wrote.
–Deborah Elkins

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