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San Francisco�A Santa Clara County, Calif., judge has thrown out a plea deal in a child molestation case after the defendant produced a tape recording to back up his argument that his lawyer misrepresented the deal. Superior Court Judge Edward Lee vacated defendant Ralph Cortez’s no-contest plea to two felony child molestation counts after listening to a recording Cortez secretly made of his conversation with attorney Jamie Harmon. Lee said Cortez’s credibility was “highly suspect” but vacated the plea over the protests of prosecutors. “There is a substantial risk this defendant is gaming the system,” Lee said. But he added, “there is something in this case that simply stinks. Ms. Harmon appears to be incorrect in at least some of her advice.” Cortez’s new attorney, Dennis Lempert, alleged that Harmon pressured Cortez into pleading no contest on the first day of trial last summer and misrepresented the terms of the deal. Cortez contended that Harmon told him that even though the agreement called for three years in prison, he would only get one year in county jail. Cortez, who drank eight beers before signing the plea, also claimed that Harmon had said his record could be expunged and he’d only have to register as a sex offender for five years. Promises After Cortez produced the tape recording made two weeks after his plea, Lee listened before the hearing and included it in the court record. He did not play it in open court. “His plea was made because an attorney lied to him,” Lempert said, “making promises that can’t be met.” Absent a pardon from the governor, sex offenders must register for life, Lempert said. “It frightens me to believe Ms. Harmon did what she did,” Lempert said. “Lawyers do stand next to the clients, whisper in their ear and tell them what to do because this is an alien environment. But this whisper has to be truthful.” Harmon has said she didn’t mislead Cortez. She wasn’t in court for the plea decision, but said in an interview afterward that Lempert had twisted the facts for his own financial gain. “This is the reason people don’t like lawyers,” Harmon said, adding that Cortez won’t get that deal again. “Lempert would do anything to make a buck, including disparage my character.” Lee said that even though the tape was made after the deal was cut, “inferences could be made” about what Harmon told Cortez the day of the deal. Moments after Lee vacated the plea, Lempert said that he was only representing Cortez for that motion. The case was referred to the public defender’s office.

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