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Ohio Supreme Court: Defendant Has Reasonable and Legitimate Basis to Withdraw Guilty Plea Before Sentencing When He Discovers Evidence That Would Have Affected Decision

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Ohio held that Terry Barnes Sr. had a reasonable and legitimate basis to withdraw his guilty plea before sentencing when he discovered evidence that had been withheld from him by his attorney and that evidence would have negated his decision to plead guilty had he known about it.

Evidence showed that Leah McLaurin confronted Barnes at a gas station, and an argument ensued. Barnes left, and when he returned to the gas station later that day, McLaurin was still there. Someone at the gas station called Jeffrey McLaurin (Leah’s brother) and told him Barnes was arguing with Leah. Jeffrey arrived at the gas station with a gun and struck Barnes in the face with it. Barnes drew his gun in response, and the two exchanged gunfire. Barnes, two bystanders, and Leah sustained gunshot wounds, but Leah’s were fatal.

Authorities examined the surveillance video footage that showed Barnes, Jeffrey, and an unidentified third-party all firing guns, but the footage did not show who was responsible for causing Leah’s death. The State provided the video footage to Barnes’ counsel but designated it “counsel only” under Criminal Rule 16(C) – meaning that Barnes’ counsel was not permitted to show the footage to Barnes but could only discuss the contents with him.

Barnes was indicted on one count of murder, one count of voluntary manslaughter, three counts of felonious assault, and two counts of discharging a firearm on or near prohibited premises. At his bond hearing, Barnes maintained he acted in self-defense.

In September 2019, Barnes accepted a plea deal from the State wherein he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in exchange for the State amending the voluntary manslaughter charge to involuntary manslaughter and the State requesting the trial court to dismiss the remaining charges. The trial court granted the State’s request, accepted Barnes’ guilty plea, and set a sentencing date for October 2019.

On the date of sentencing, Barnes moved to withdraw his guilty plea on the grounds that he was not guilty of the offense, as he had always maintained that he had acted in self-defense; that R.C. 2901.05, as amended, shifted the burden of proof on self-defense to the State; that one of his attorneys who was unaware of the “counsel only” designation had shown him the video footage; and that due to his military training, he could demonstrate that the sound from the footage revealed he did not shoot first, bolstering his claim of self-defense.

At the hearing on Barnes’ motion, the trial court recited the procedural requirements of Criminal Rule 11 (“Rule 11”) regarding guilty pleas, determined those requirements were met, and denied Barnes’ motion. The trial court found Barnes guilty and sentenced him to community-control sanctions for five years.

On appeal, the Eighth District Court of Appeals (“COA”) reviewed the trial court’s reasoning through the lens of the non-exhaustive factors from State v. Peterseim, 428 N.E.2d 863 (Ohio App. 1980). The COA determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Barnes’ motion because Barnes (1) was represented by highly competent counsel, (2) was afforded a full hearing pursuant to Rule 11 before entering his plea, (3) was given a complete and impartial hearing on his motion to withdraw his plea, and (4) the trial court gave full and fair consideration to his plea withdrawal request.

The COA also considered the four additional factors of State v. Heisa, 2015 Ohio App. LEXIS 2177 (2015): (1) the motion was made in a reasonable time, (2) the motion stated specific reasons for withdrawal, (3) the record showed that the defendant understood the nature of the charges and possible penalties, and (4) the defendant had evidence of a plausible defense. In light of all the foregoing factors, the COA concluded that the trial court’s judgment was not unreasonable, arbitrary, or unconscionable.

The Ohio Supreme Court granted Barnes a discretionary appeal wherein he argued that the COA failed to apply the Court’s framework governing plea withdrawals as provided for in State v. Xie, 584 N.E.2d 715 (Ohio 1992), and instead focused too narrowly on procedural protections in Peterseim and Heisa. Barnes argued that his assessment of the withheld evidence and how that evidence would impact his case is the sole factor that matters in determining whether he should be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea.

The Court agreed with Barnes that the Peterseim and Heisa factors don’t apply to this case; instead, Xie governs. It observed that Xie established three decades ago that a presentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea should be “freely and liberally” granted. The Court explained that there is a presumption in favor of allowing a defendant to withdraw his guilty plea. See Xie.

While Xie noted that a defendant does not have an absolute right to withdraw his guilty plea (see full opinion of current case for examples and citations of cases where the denial of a motion to withdraw a guilty plea was upheld on appeal), in Barnes’ case, it was uncontroverted that (1) the person who fired the lethal shot was unknown, (2) Barnes had always claimed he acted in self-defense, and (3) when Barnes agreed to plead guilty, he was unaware of the footage that he believes, based on his military training, supports his claim of self-defense and insisted he would not have pleaded guilty had he viewed and heard the video footage before he entered his plea.

The Court explained: “Barnes pleaded guilty to the offense of involuntary manslaughter, but not because there was evidence that he actually committed the crime.... He pleaded guilty because he believed there was no evidence that corroborated his self-defense claim. And when he discovered the video footage with audio, there was evidence that corroborated his self-defense claim. At all times, he maintains he would not have pleaded guilty had he known about the footage with audio. Finally, Barnes moved to withdraw his guilty plea in a timely manner. For these reasons, we hold that (1) Barnes had a reasonable and legitimate basis for withdrawing his guilty plea, (2) the trial court erred by not granting his motion, and (3) the court of appeals erred by affirming the trial court’s judgment.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the COA, vacated Barnes’ conviction, and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. See: State v. Barnes, 2022 Ohio LEXIS 2559 (2022). 

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