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North Carolina Supreme Court: Judge May Not Reject Informed Guilty Plea Because Defendant Refuses to Admit He’s Factually Guilty

The Court’s December 18, 2020, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Kenneth C. Chandler, who was indicted on August 3, 2015, on one count of first-degree sexual offense with a child and one count of indecent liberties with a child. A plea agreement was reached on February 6, 2017, that provided for Chandler to plead guilty of taking indecent liberties with a child in exchange for dismissal of the sexual offense charge. The court was left with discretion to impose a sentence up to the statutory maximum of 59 months in prison.

The next day, Chandler appeared before the court and stated he was guilty and understood he had a right to trial. However, he said he was only pleading guilty to the charged offense in order to prevent his granddaughter (the victim) from having to endure court proceedings. Based upon that statement, the court refused to accept the plea, and he never raised an objection in the trial court about the rejection of the plea.

Chandler’s case then proceeded to trial, and he was convicted on both counts. The trial court sentenced him to consecutive sentences of 192 to 291 months on the sex offense conviction and 16 to 29 months to the indecent liberties with a child conviction. Chandler appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed after finding the trial court properly rejected the plea because the trial court could not find it was the product of his informed choice.

In its analysis, the North Carolina Supreme Court began by noting that “it is well established that when a trial court acts contrary to a statutory mandate and a defendant is prejudiced thereby, the right to appeal the court’s action is preserved, notwithstanding defendant’s failure to object at trial.” In re E.D., 827 S.E.2d 450 (N.C. 2019). The Court determined that N.C.G.S. Section 15A-1023(c) mandates that “[t]he judge must accept the plea if he determines that the plea is the product of the informed choice of the defendant and that there is a factual basis for the plea.” In fact, the Court explained that nothing in the statute or case law “announces a statutory or constitutional requirement that a defendant admit factual guilt in order to enter a guilty plea.”

The Court then turned to the issue of “whether the trial court committed any error of law that prejudiced the defendant.” The Court observed that the general statutes do not require a defendant to admit factual guilt in order for a trial judge to accept a guilty plea. Yet the trial court rejected the plea because Chandler refused to admit he was factually guilty.

Under 15A-1023(c), the “judge must accept a guilty where (1) the plea is based on defendant’s own informed choice, (2) a factual basis exists for the plea, and (3) sentencing is left to the discretion of the court,” the Court stated.

The plea offer did not include a sentencing recommendation, and the jury’s verdict establishes beyond doubt that a factual basis for the plea existed. The only question was whether Chandler made an informed choice to enter a guilty plea.

The Court concluded that Chandler clearly made an informed decision. He said he understood he was pleading guilty to the charge. He then cogently explained that his reason for doing so was “to keep [his] granddaughter from having to go through more trauma and go through court.” He also understood he was waiving his right to a jury trial.

Because Chandler made an informed choice, it was error for the trial court to reject the plea, the Court ruled. The Court further ruled that the error prejudiced Chandler. Under the plea agreement, the State dismissed the charge of first-degree sexual offense with a child, which resulted in a maximum sentence of 59 months’ imprisonment. However, with the plea rejected, Chandler faced a maximum sentence of 320 months in prison. This resulted in Chandler being sentenced to more than three times the maximum sentence he would have served under the plea agreement. Thus, the Court ruled that he was prejudiced by the trial court’s error in rejecting the plea.

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Related legal case

State v. Chandler

 

 

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