A state appellate court panel has vacated the 30-to-66-year prison sentence
that had been given to a Philadelphia man who pleaded guilty to raping a young girl during the summer of 2009.
An en banc Pennsylvania Superior Court panel on Oct. 8 determined that a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge improperly denied Jose Carrasquillo’s request to withdraw his guilty plea before he received his sentence.
Carrasquillo, 30, who is serving out his sentence at the State Correctional Institution – Somerset, had pleaded guilty to the rape of an 11-year-old girl in June 2009 and the attempted rape of a 16-year-old girl in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.
The case made headlines when a crowd of neighbors, who learned of Carrasquillo’s possible involvement in the crimes, surrounded the man after spotting him on a Philadelphia street and beat him and held him until police arrived to make their arrest.
Carrasquillo’s sentencing came on Nov. 30, 2010, after he pleaded guilty to a variety of charges, including, but not limited to, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, and unlawful restraint, court records show.
In their opinion, the appellate judges wrote that the trial court was wrong to deny the defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea at the time of sentencing.
Carrasquillo did an about face, contending he was actually innocent of the crimes.
The trial court denied the motion to withdraw the guilty plea, finding that Carrasquillo “was not acting in good faith and withdrawal would cause substantial prejudice to the Commonwealth,” according to the Superior Court’s opinion.
Citing court precedence, the Superior Court judges wrote that while there is no absolute right to withdraw a guilty plea, “it is clear that a request made before sentencing … should be liberally allowed.”
State prosecutors had argued that allowing Carrasquillo to withdraw his guilty plea “threatened to bring about unnecessary delay which could affect the victim’s ability to remember the events and details of her abuse,” the appellate court ruling notes.
The commonwealth had also argued that in reliance upon the guilty plea, the rape victim, who is now a young teenager, was spared from having to testify at trial.
“We are profoundly sympathetic to the Commonwealth’s desire to shield [the victim] from the emotional discomfort likely to result from testifying,” the panel wrote. “Yet, it is plain that this humane desire does not suffice as a matter of law to substantiate a claim of substantial prejudice.”
The appeals judges wrote that had Carrasquillo never pleaded guilty, prosecutors would have been in the same position with regard to victim testimony as it would have been had the trial judge allowed the defendant’s withdraw of his guilty plea before sentencing.
In the end, the en banc panel wrote that the commonwealth failed to establish that it would be substantially prejudiced if Carrasquillo were to withdraw his plea.
The appellate body vacated the sentence and remanded the matter to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.
The Superior Court judges hearing the appeal were John Bender, Susan Peikes Gantman, Jack Panella, Christine L. Donohue, Jacqueline O. Shogan, Anne E. Lazarus, Sallie Updyke Mundy, Paula Francisco Ott, and David N. Wecht.
Mundy filed a separate, 10-page dissent in which she said she doesn’t believe the trial court abused its discretion in denying Carrasquillo’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea.
Mundy was joined in her dissent by President Judge Bender and Judge Panella.
Mundy pointed to Carrasquillo’s numerous requests for a polygraph, or lie detector, test, which was never given in his case.
While the defendant asserted his innocence by uttering the words, “I didn’t commit this crime,” Mundy said the appellate court’s review could not end with that statement, and had to be looked at in the entire context of Carrasquillo’s statement to the trial court.
“In looking at all of Appellant’s statements to the trial court, it becomes evident that Appellant only wanted to assert his innocence and withdraw his guilty plea if he could undergo such an examination,” Mundy wrote. “Our cases treat this as a conditional withdrawal of a guilty plea, which is not a fair and just reason to do so.”
Mundy went on to write that Carrasquillo’s statement that he would assert his innocence only if the trial court ordered a lie detector test is “far from a ‘clear’ assertion of innocence,’ as the Majority claims.”
Based on all of these considerations, I conclude that Appellant did not provide a fair and just reason for the withdrawal of his guilty plea” Mundy wrote, saying she would affirm the Nov. 30, 2010, judgment of sentence.