Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs

 

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On Oct. 20, 2015 Johnson pleaded guilty, absent agreement, to a drug conspiracy, and to being a felon in possession of a firearm. District court sentenced him to a mandatory life sentence, rejecting his July 3, 2015 motion to withdraw his plea on the ground that he did not understand his guilty plea would necessarily entail a mandatory life sentence. On appeal, Second Circuit vacated judgment and remanded Johnson’s case, finding his guilty plea not entered voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently. Johnson had at least a chance of acquittal at trial, and thus gained nothing from pleading guilty. The three stages of Johnson’s plea hearing were comprehensible only by a lawyer or judge for whom plea hearings are routine. District court should have avoided confusion by clearly and unambiguously telling Johnson that, regardless of everything else said, the consequence of his guilty plea would be a life sentence. The only way to ensure that a seemingly irrational guilty plea, like that made by Johnson, is made knowingly is to tell the defendant clearly and unambiguously that the judge has no discretion at sentencing, and that accepting the plea will result in no less than a mandatory sentence.

Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs

 

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On Oct. 20, 2015 Johnson pleaded guilty, absent agreement, to a drug conspiracy, and to being a felon in possession of a firearm. District court sentenced him to a mandatory life sentence, rejecting his July 3, 2015 motion to withdraw his plea on the ground that he did not understand his guilty plea would necessarily entail a mandatory life sentence. On appeal, Second Circuit vacated judgment and remanded Johnson’s case, finding his guilty plea not entered voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently. Johnson had at least a chance of acquittal at trial, and thus gained nothing from pleading guilty. The three stages of Johnson’s plea hearing were comprehensible only by a lawyer or judge for whom plea hearings are routine. District court should have avoided confusion by clearly and unambiguously telling Johnson that, regardless of everything else said, the consequence of his guilty plea would be a life sentence. The only way to ensure that a seemingly irrational guilty plea, like that made by Johnson, is made knowingly is to tell the defendant clearly and unambiguously that the judge has no discretion at sentencing, and that accepting the plea will result in no less than a mandatory sentence.