Knowing, Intelligent and Voluntary

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

Previously a blog concerning urbina case discussed what constitutes the crime of aggravated manslaughter and the defense of self-defense. Today’s blog will explain waiver of a defense of self-defense, and briefly discuss the process of appeal after a plea agreement.

As discussed in the last blog, the basic facts of this case (obviously they are in dispute) is that the defendant, a minor at the time, was walking away from two individuals when he turned, allegedly saw them draw weapons, and reacted by drawing his own weapon and killing one of the individuals with six gunshots to the head. When police investigated the crime scene no weapon was found on the individual shot by the defendant. The defendant’s lawyer considered a defense of self-defense but determined that given the excessive number of shots fired by the defendant, and the mystery of what happened to the alleged weapon the victim allegedly drew, the defense was not viable. The defendant pled guilty to manslaughter and informed the judge that he didn’t mean to kill the victim, but just wanted him to back up, claiming that his gun went off on its own when he pulled it out.

Three years into his 17 1/2 year sentence the defendant appealed because he argued the trial court should not have accepted his guilty plea since the factual basis provided indicated he was asserting an affirmative defense to aggravated manslaughter. It should be noted that one of the reasons the defendant accepted the plea deal in the first place was to avoid an indictment for first-degree murder. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction and concluded that the defendant voluntarily waived the defense of self-defense, but there was a dissent. Rule 2:2 relates to appealable judgments, and Rule 2:2-1(a)(2) specifically states that if there is a dissent in the Appellate Division, the defendant has a right for the N.J. Supreme Court to hear their case, no certification necessary.

In order for a plea to be valid there must be a sufficient factual basis for the plea. In other words, a defendant accused of armed robbery cannot approach the judge to enter into a plea deal, state that he never robbed anyone nor possessed a weapon and was in church at the time of the robbery, yet still plead guilty. Furthermore, in New Jersey a plea deal does not waive the affirmative defense of self-defense. If someone is dissatisfied with their plea deal due to what they believe to be an insufficient factual basis, there are three ways to present that to a higher court:

  1. motion to withdraw the plea;
  2. post-conviction relief; or
  3. direct appeal.

In this case the direct appeal was heard by the N.J. Supreme Court and the guilty plea was vacated, and matter remanded. The main reason for this was that trial court failed to explain the law of self-defense to the defendant, especially the fact the burden of proof to prove there was no self-defense falls on the prosecution. For this reason the defendant’s plea may not have been knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.

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