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Guilty Plea in Molestation Case Possibly the Result of Ineffective Counsel

July 20, 2023

Case is remanded back to the trial court to determine whether counsel's failure to raise a procedural double jeopardy claim affected the defendant's decision to enter the guilty plea.

In Mathis v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that the defendant may be entitled to withdraw his guilty plea because his attorney failed to properly pursue a procedural double jeopardy claim on his behalf.

Defendant’s Prior Trial and Guilty Plea

The defendant was charged with the offenses of aggravated child molestation and statutory rape. The case initially went to trial but a mistrial was declared when a police officer testified about statements that were allegedly made by the defendant that should not have been admissible.

The defense attorney then filed a motion to dismiss the case, alleging that the prosecutor had deliberately caused the mistrial. The trial court denied the motion.

The State then re-indicted the case, adding an additional count of aggravated child molestation as well as a charge of enticing a minor for indecent purposes. These two new charges were alleged to have occurred on the same day with the same child as the two charges in the original indictment.

A second trial then began but, just after opening statements, the defendant entered a guilty plea to all of the charges. He entered an Alford plea whereby no admission of guilt was made but the defendant believed that resolving the case with the plea was in his best interests. He was then sentenced to serve 10 years in prison followed by five years on probation.

Motion to Withdraw the Plea

The defendant then filed a motion to withdraw his plea contending that his attorney was ineffective for failing to raise a procedural double jeopardy claim with respect to the new charges in the second indictment.

The trial court denied the motion and the defendant appealed.

Analysis of the Procedural Double Jeopardy Issue

The defendant argued that the new charges in the second indictment were barred by Georgia’s procedural double jeopardy statute. The statute provides that all crimes must be prosecuted in a single prosecution if they arise from the same conduct, are within the same jurisdiction, and are known to the prosecuting attorney at the time of the commencement of the prosecution.

Crimes are considered to arise from the same conduct when they occur at the same location, on the same date, and “without a break in the action.” Here, it appeared that there was no dispute that the two new charges arose from the same conduct as the original ones.

All of the charges were undoubtedly within the same jurisdiction as they were all indicted in Fulton County Superior Court.

Lastly, it was established that the prosecutor knew about the additional alleged crimes at the time of the first trial. The arrest warrant and police reports established that the police had informed the district attorney’s office of all of the facts of the case – including the facts giving rise to the two new charges – well before the filing of the first indictment.

Appellate Court’s Ruling

The Court of Appeals held that the defendant had established that the provisions of the procedural double jeopardy statute barred a prosecution on the two new charges. Once the first trial commenced, the State was precluded from adding any additional charges stemming from the same conduct.

The Court concluded that had the defendant’s attorney properly filed a plea in bar on procedural double jeopardy grounds, the two new charges would have been successfully dismissed. The defense attorney even testified that he intended to raise this issue but ultimately failed to do so for some reason.

The only remaining question was whether the defense counsel’s failure to secure the dismissal of the new charges affected the defendant’s decision to enter the plea. At the hearing on the motion to withdraw the plea, the attorney testified that he believed the defendant entered the plea because of the new charges.

However, the Court of Appeals found that the evidence concerning the defendant’s reasoning for entering the plea was not clear. It’s certainly possible that even if the new charges were successfully dismissed, the defendant still would have decided to enter the plea.

Therefore, the Court ultimately remanded the case back to the trial court for it to determine whether the defendant would have gone to trial had the new charges been dismissed. If so, then the motion to withdraw the plea must be granted.

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