Like most things in the criminal justice system, plea deals are often more complicated than they seem at first glance. While many people think of a plea deal as a simple negotiation that offers a defendant better terms of punishment in exchange for a guilty verdict and admittance to their crimes, the truth is that plea agreements can have disastrous consequences for the people who enter into them, especially if such a deal was struck under stressful circumstances or without the defendant’s full understanding. As an experienced post-conviction criminal defense attorney in Austin, Texas, Chris Perri receives many questions about plea agreements, including: “can a plea deal be reversed?”
But first, you might be asking yourself, why would someone want to? Well, let’s say you were wrongfully arrested for an extremely serious crime in Texas, such as murder, burglary, or sexual assault. You’re appointed a criminal defense attorney who recommends you take a plea deal to avoid the risk of trial, where you could face a steep prison sentence. You’re terrified of a lengthy prison stay, yet you feel sick about admitting to something that you didn’t do. Still, in the end you decide to accept the plea deal, even though this may be poor advice from your lawyer.
Fast-forward a few months, and you’re now regretting your decision to plea. You wish you hadn’t admitted to a crime you didn’t commit. Is there anything else you can do to reopen the case? Is it possible to reverse a plea deal conviction in Texas?
This is one of the most common—and difficult—questions we get at Chris Perri Law. Though it’s very hard to overturn wrongful convictions in Texas, especially in plea deal cases, it is sometimes possible. In fact, Chris Perri has successfully helped clients reverse wrongful convictions, even following plea agreements.
Drawing on our firm’s extensive experience in post-conviction criminal defense, we’ll explain everything you need to know about overturning guilty plea deals below.
What is a “Plea Deal”?
The phrase “plea deal” or “plea bargain” refers to a criminal case outcome negotiated between a county or federal prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer on behalf of their client. In exchange for the client’s admission of guilt–and usually a criminal conviction on their record–the prosecutor agrees to a certain punishment that is often less than the maximum, which the client might have received if they took their case to trial. Trials are risky and unpredictable, so defense attorneys commonly recommend plea agreements instead, especially in cases that could result in lengthy prison sentences or lifetime ramifications, such as sex offender registration. Sometimes, taking a plea deal is a wise choice, yet other times not. Often, it depends on the terms of the deal.
Once the prosecution and defense have agreed to a plea bargain, they must present it to the overseeing Texas judge, who must approve of the deal as well. Before signing off on the plea agreement, the judge will ask the defendant questions such as:
Do you agree to this plea deal out of your own volition?
Are you pleading guilty because you are guilty and for no other reason?
Has anyone promised you anything other than this plea agreement, or threatened you if you don’t agree to it?”
The judge asks these questions to ensure that the defendant is entering the plea agreement voluntarily and with a complete understanding of the terms. This is part of what makes overturning a plea deal so challenging—the government now has you on record admitting guilt under oath.
Nevertheless, there are rare times when plea deals can still be reversed.
Why Do People Accept Plea Deals if They’re Innocent?
That sad reality is that innocent people enter into plea agreements all the time, despite being innocent. Below are the most common reasons why:
Trials are expensive. Most criminal defense attorneys in Austin, Texas, charge an additional trial fee. Because plea deals involve less work and labor hours for lawyers, they’re typically less costly. Some defendants take a plea bargain because they don’t want to pay additional legal fees, especially for an uncertain outcome.
Trials are risky. The Constitution of the United States declares that everyone should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but that’s not always the case. Even if your criminal defense lawyer does a phenomenal job at trial, you never know how a jury is going to rule, or why. Even if you are innocent, you may be found guilty and given a harsh, unfair sentence.
Trials can take a long time. Trials usually happen years after an arrest, and many people don’t want a criminal case hanging over their head for that long. They’d rather take a plea deal and move forward with their lives. Furthermore, people sometimes accept plea deals simply to get out of jail. Following an arrest, some people cannot afford to pay bail, so in most Texas counties, their options are to either wait indefinitely behind bars for a trial or to agree to a plea deal.
What is an Open Plea?
Open pleas (also known as “unnegotiated pleas”) are much rarer than traditional plea agreements, but they do happen. An open plea deal occurs when the prosecution and defense cannot come to an agreement, and instead of going to trial, the defense asks the judge to come up with a fair sentence after accepting the client’s admission of guilt.
Open plea proceedings usually occur in two phases: (1) guilty plea and (2) sentencing. After the client enters a guilty plea and accepts a conviction, the judge typically requests a pre-sentence investigation prior to sentencing them. This allows experts, such as probation officers, to interview the defendant and gather evidence to help present the judge with a thorough picture of the defendant’s life and circumstances. The judge takes these findings into consideration when deciding on a fair punishment.
Defense attorneys sometimes recommend an open plea if they think that the judge will be more lenient than the prosecution. Sadly, open plea agreements often backfire, leaving defendants with a worse sentence than if they’d accepted the prosecution’s original plea offer.
How Do You Overturn a Wrongful Conviction in Plea Deal Cases?
There are two ways to overturn wrongful convictions: appeals and writs of habeas corpus. Most plea agreements require defendants to waive their right to appeal, leaving an application for writ of habeas corpus as the only legal way to reopen a case following a plea agreement.
What is a Writ of Habeas Corpus?
Similar to an appeal, a writ of habeas corpus is a highly technical legal procedure that allows one to request a reversal of their criminal conviction, whether the defendant lost at trial or took a plea deal. Essentially, a writ is how you fight to overturn the outcome of your case.
In our experience at Chris Perri Law, the most common issues raised on writs of habeas corpus include:
Ineffective assistance of counsel – this means that your original criminal defense lawyer was grossly inadequate. To learn more about what qualifies as ineffective assistance of counsel, read our related article here.
Actual innocence claim – this means that you now have proof of your innocence, such as compelling new witness testimony or a recantation of a prior accusation by a witness.
Prosecutorial misconduct – this means that the prosecution in your case acted extremely unprofessionally. An example of prosecutorial misconduct would be hiding evidence that would have helped your case.
Keep in mind that, on a writ of habeas corpus, it is now the defense’s responsibility to prove their claims. For instance, if you want to successfully argue that the prosecutor acted unjustly, you and your writ attorney must have credible evidence to back it up.
Reversing a Plea Deal: Step One
If you or someone you love was wrongfully convicted of a crime, yet accepted a plea deal, the fight isn’t over. The first step to reversing the guilty plea is to find a skilled post-conviction lawyer to help. They can assist you with attempting to overturn the case outcome through a writ of habeas corpus.
Keep in mind, you can only raise a certain issue on a writ of habeas corpus once. This means it’s essential to get the best legal counsel possible on your first writ, as you cannot go back and relitigate a claim. In other words, you only get one shot.
Based in Austin and practicing throughout Texas, Chris Perri is an award-winning attorney with over fifteen years of experience in post-conviction criminal defense. He’s helped clients overturn wrongful convictions, even following guilty pleas, and he might be able to help you, too.
To schedule your free case consultation, call (512)269-0260 or visit www.chrisperrilaw.com today. The sooner you act, the more likely we can help.