Watch What You Plea To

In a rare reversal of a guilty plea, the Third Department recently vacated a child abuse conviction because the wrong crime was charged in the felony complaint, the document that starts a case against a defendant. On January 31, 2012, defendant Paul O’Neill pled guilty to a superior court information charging him with two very serious counts: use of a child in a sexual performance, a class C felony, and course of sexual conduct against a child in the first degree, a class B felony. After Mr. O’Neill’s conviction was affirmed on appeal, he brought a motion for coram nobis, arguing ineffective assistance of counsel at his appeal for failure to “raise the issue that the [superior court information] was jurisdictionally defective.”
The Third Department granted Mr. O’Neill’s motion and, on June 25, 2015, vacated his guilty plea, holding that the information was jurisdictionally defective because the law requires that the crimes charged in the information are the same or lesser included offenses as those listed in the felony complaint. In this case, the felonies Mr. O’Neill pled guilty to were more serious than the child pornography possession charge in the felony complaint. Under unambiguous legal principles in place, the court felt “constrained to conclude that the guilty plea must be vacated” and remitted the case for further proceedings.

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