Saving Tywand Hudson
Sometimes the courts try to save a defendant from himself, especially in plea withdrawal cases. The attorney works out a sweetheart deal, or maybe he doesn't; maybe it's just the best deal under the circumstances, but it will save the defendant a decade or so in prison, maybe a life tail in a rape case, maybe even the needle. Then the client has second thoughts, tries to back out of it, but the court won't let him. I've seen it happen in dozens of cases.
It might have happened to Tywand Hudson. He and two cohorts, Johnny Speed and Michael Brooks, were charged with breaking into the home of a woman and her two children, and robbing them at gunpoint. That worked out to a count of aggravated burglary, and three each of aggravated robbery and kidnapping, all with one- and three-year firearms specs. That meant Hudson was looking at some serious pain: the robbery and the kidnapping would merge, and if you got the right panel in the court of appeals the burglary might, too, but there were three victims, so there's a separate animus for each one, and the three-year gun specs... Realistically, the best Hudson could hope for on conviction was a sentence of around eight years, and there was a distinct possibility of one in the mid-teens.
Hudson was spared that pain when, in the midst of trial, the State and the defendants agreed to a deal: a plea to a single count of robbery and one of abduction, both third degree felonies, with a one-year gun spec and an agreed two year sentence. Sure enough, when Hudson showed up for sentencing two days later, he tried to back out of the plea, but the court denied the motion, and last week in State v. Hudson, the 8th District completed the judicial effort to rescue Hudson from himself.But maybe not.
The panel had to go some ways to accomplish that. As appellate courts are wont to do, they've come up with a laundry list of factors - as few as four, as many as nine, depending on the decision - to determine whether a judge has abused his discretion in denying a motion to withdraw a plea. One of those factors is that the judge has given the defendant a "complete and impartial hearing" on the motion to withdraw. The opinion quotes the judge as announcing during the hearing that this "was not going to happen" and that the motion "was ridiculous," which certainly seems to provide fertile ground for a claim that the hearing fell short of the mark of being "impartial." The appellate panel chalks this up to the judge's "frustration," and finds that the judge nonetheless "afforded Hudson the opportunity to explain why he wished to vacate his plea." That misses the point: what good does it do Hudson to have the opportunity to explain why he wished to vacate his plea, when it was quite clear that no explanation would suffice? The court's citation to the fact that "because the trial had already begun, jeopardy had already attached" is a red herring; Hudson wouldn't have been able to use that as a bar to retrial any more than a defendant who successfully moves for a mistrial would have.
The court does quote extensively from the reasons Hudson proffered for wanting to withdraw his plea. He said he was innocent, and that he believed the State was "using one of my codefendants as a chain to bring us all down." (He'd filed a motion for a separate trial, which was denied.)
"They had evidence on one of my codefendants, and I was being told that if they find him guilty they were going to find me and my other codefendants guilty, and I didn't know what to do and I didn't want to drag nobody else into nothing. I just wanted to be tried by myself."
There might be something to that. I don't know about the evidence against Hudson; I haven't talked to any of the participants. But this is what I do know:
- Brooks and Speed were 21 and 24, respectively, and had no felony criminal record, at least in Cuyahoga County. Brooks was 30, and had eleven prior felony cases.
- Brooks also had a separate case for having weapons under disability, because he had a gun in his possession when he was arrested three weeks later. The judge had denied the motion to sever that case from the others. The reason? Brooks also had social security cards belonging to the victims of the robbery.
- Getting seven 1st degree felonies and a 3-year gun spec dropped to two 3rd degree felonies, a 1-year gun spec, and an agreed minimum sentence is a really, really good deal. This prosecutor's office doesn't do that unless they have a pretty weak case.
That's not to say that the court was wrong. One of the things that it missed is that a motion to withdraw a plea to an agreed sentence is treated as a post-sentence motion, thereby requiring a showing of manifest injustice. Even under the pre-sentence standard, the law is that a defendant seeking to withdraw a plea has to show more than a change of heart.
And that's my problem with it. Hudson was a twenty-one year old kid with, as far as I can tell, no experience with the criminal justice system. If someone had come to his home and sold him aluminum siding, he'd have three days to back out of the deal. Instead, he sits in a room with three lawyers and two other defendants and his family, all of them pressuring him to plead guilty, and when he does, he's stuck with it.
Maybe Hudson got the break of his life when the court refused to let him take back his plea. But maybe he not only now has a felony record, but he's spending the next two years in prison for something he didn't do. Sometimes people don't need saving.