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Lorenzo Roye thought he had a good deal. Roye had been charged with assault with intent to kill and faced a possible life sentence for allegedly stabbing his girlfriend in 1997. The U.S. Attorney’s Office offered Roye, then 38 years old, what appeared to be a real bargain — as far as plea deals are concerned. In exchange for pleading guilty to aggravated assault, prosecutors agreed to drop the attempted murder count and a related misdemeanor charge. Better yet, Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Edward Agee said in open court that the government would recommend a sentence of time served, noting that Roye had already spent nine months in jail awaiting trial. Roye would serve three years’ probation and would also have to enroll in an anger management program — but no additional jail time. With that, Roye pleaded guilty to the felony assault charge in December 1997. Yet when he appeared before the same judge for sentencing just two months later, it was as if every player in the case — the prosecutor, the defense lawyer, and the judge — had come down with amnesia. Prosecutor Agee recommended two to six years in prison. Roye’s court-appointed counsel, Durward Taylor, told the judge that he vaguely remembered a sentence that included probation, but he did not object to the prison term the government was now proposing. Even Washington, D.C., Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff, who was present when Agee made his plea offer, did not pick up on the mistake. In fact, Bartnoff said she was prepared to sentence Roye to a term longer than the government called for. Only Roye remembered the original deal. Despite his requests to withdraw the guilty plea and to hire new defense counsel, Bartnoff sentenced Roye to three to nine years and shipped him off to prison. Roye spent the next three years behind bars. Last month, a three-judge panel of the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals granted Roye’s motion to withdraw the guilty plea, essentially endorsing Roye’s claim that he had been wrongly sentenced and incarcerated. The reason for the mishandling of the case remains unclear. Agee, who left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1999, could not be located for comment. Taylor, who was reprimanded by Washington, D.C., Bar Counsel earlier this year for destroying Roye’s case file, did not return three messages left at his law office. Judge Bartnoff did not return two calls for comment. But Roye’s case does highlight how long it can take to correct mistakes in the criminal justice system. “Most prosecutors don’t breach their plea agreements, most judges would catch it, and the defense lawyer is there to make sure,” says Hyattsville, Md., lawyer Joanne Vasco, Roye’s court-appointed counsel for the appeal. “That didn’t happen in this case.” Roye is still incarcerated at Lorton Correctional Facility in Virginia. He claims he is innocent and that the only reason he pleaded guilty was because he has a criminal record. “I think the system is unbalanced to a degree,” Roye says. “If you’re hit with a charge and have any charges in the past, and you go to trial and lose, then you face a long time in jail.” For its part, the government says it acknowledged the mistake as soon as it acquired a transcript of Roye’s court appearances. “In a sense, it all worked out at some point,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Bellin, who handled the appeal. Monty Wilkinson, the spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, says that Roye’s case is an anomaly. “There was a breakdown here, but it is a rare occasion,” he says. “While it’s difficult to say why it happened, it is rare.” JAILHOUSE MOTIONS Roye was picked up by police on March 16, 1997, after a fight with a neighbor. While in custody, police learned that Roye was possibly involved in the stabbing of his girlfriend, Thalia Roberts, a day earlier. According to court papers, Roye allegedly confessed to a police officer that he stabbed Roberts. The U.S. Attorney’s Office took the stabbing case to a grand jury, which handed up a three-count indictment. The most serious charge was assault with intent to kill. Given that Roye had a long criminal record, including two robbery convictions, he faced a possible life sentence if found guilty. Roye, who remained incarcerated pending trial, fired his first court-appointed attorney for allegedly failing to investigate the case. Roye himself then filed a couple of motions in an attempt to gain information about the government’s case. Durward Taylor was then appointed to his case. Roye says Taylor met with him once in prison, at which point Roye turned over all the materials he had. Roye also said that he gave Taylor the name of a witness who would testify that Roberts stabbed herself. According to Roye, the next time he saw Taylor was the day his trial was scheduled to begin. At that point, the government offered Roye a deal. The plea bargain was discussed at length before Judge Bartnoff on Dec. 9, 1997. Prosecutor Agee spelled out the terms of the deal, which was contingent on Roye pleading guilty to aggravated assault. “[W]e would reserve the right to step back,” Agee said, according to a transcript. “We would limit allocution to requesting that the court impose a split sentence of 5 to 15, and we would not be opposed to execution — suspended execution of the sentence provided — and probation, provided the defendant undergoes a program of anger management and court imposes a term of probation of at least three years.” Agee also said the government would not seek a long sentence based on Roye’s criminal past. Bartnoff asked whether the government was recommending that Roye spend no additional time in prison — that she basically sentence him to the time he had already served. Agee responded, “Yes.” Bartnoff then told Roye that “this is not a bad offer,” although the decision to take the plea was totally his. Bartnoff also noted that she was not required to accept the government’s recommendation. Roye spoke with his family, his lawyer and Agee during a break and decided to take the plea. “My mother said to consider it,” Roye says, “because they were talking about probation.” FORGET ME NOT On Feb. 6, 1998, Roye returned to Bartnoff’s courtroom for sentencing. Defense lawyer Taylor said he was “a little bit vague” as to what was discussed at the plea negotiation. “I believe there was some conversation about probation,” Taylor said. Agee told the court that Roye had yet to realize the seriousness of the crime and gave a graphic description of how the defendant stabbed Roberts. “A person like that doesn’t deserve to be on the street at this particular time,” Agee said. “[W]e would submit to the court at least two to six years is appropriate.” Agee didn’t bring up the December deal. Nor did he offer any suggestion that the government had changed its mind — that it had new evidence or reason to believe Roye should not be given probation. Judge Bartnoff asked Roye whether he had anything to say. Roye replied that the government had offered him probation and was now breaking that promise. “Your Honor, if it was up to the court I would really like to take this case to trial because, you know, I feel I’m being … ,” Roye said before being cut off by Bartnoff. Bartnoff told Roye that the government was not breaching the plea agreement — but she also misstated the terms that had been agreed to in her courtroom just two months earlier. “Their recommendation was a split sentence, and they said that they weren’t going to ask for more than three to nine years, and today Mr. Agee just asked for two to six, which is less than what he said at the time of the plea he might ask for,” Bartnoff said. Taylor made a motion to withdraw as Roye’s counsel, stating that Roye was accusing the lawyer of trying to sell him out. Bartnoff denied the motion and imposed a sentence of three to nine years. Roye continued to fight his case from prison without much success. According to Roye, he tried to get his case file from Taylor, but the lawyer never responded to written requests. Roye also didn’t have the money to pay for the court transcripts that would later play a key role in proving him right. Roye says he had a “jailhouse lawyer” — an inmate who helps other prisoners with legal work — draft motions asking that his guilty plea be withdrawn and requesting new counsel. Roye sent the motion to Bartnoff in October 1998. It took a year for Bartnoff to rule. She denied the withdrawal of the plea, but never ruled upon the motion for new counsel. Roye appealed that decision to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which assigned Vasco to represent Roye. Vasco says that Roye’s motion raised all the relevant matters, including the issue of the breach of the plea agreement that won his appeal. “Not just at his sentencing, but afterwards, he was the one — and the only one — that raised that issue,” Vasco says. PAPER TRAIL Initially, Vasco had trouble trying to verify Roye’s version of events. Roye told Vasco there was a written agreement, but prosecutors claimed they couldn’t find it, according to Vasco. Vasco contacted Taylor, Roye’s former defense lawyer, to obtain the case file. But Taylor wrote Vasco saying that he destroyed the file in March 2000. (Roye filed an ethics complaint against Taylor, and in January 2001 the D.C. Bar Counsel informally admonished the lawyer for destroying Roye’s case file without Roye’s permission.) Vasco was, however, able to obtain court transcripts that clearly outlined the terms of the agreement. She filed Roye’s appellate brief, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed there was a problem. Still, the government argued that Bartnoff should decide whether to resentence Roye or allow him to withdraw his guilty plea. On May 17, the D.C. appeals court ruled in Roye’s favor, noting that Roye’s initial deal with the government was for 11 months in prison. “Having now spent an additional thirty-nine months in prison … Roye has less to gain than he had hoped when he bargained for a government recommendation that his imprisonment be limited to time served and that he be placed on probation,” wrote Judge Stephen Glickman for the court. The appeals court, however, did not touch upon Bartnoff’s actions in the case. Despite the win, Roye could still face more time behind bars. At the time of the alleged assault on his girlfriend, Roye was on parole for a 1992 felony drug conviction. Moreover, the U.S. Attorney’s Office may still decide to go forward with the stabbing charges. U.S. attorney spokesman Wilkinson says that the government will wait to see how Roye pleads when his case comes before Bartnoff again. Roye is waiting to hear when he’ll appear in court. Vasco, whose representation of Roye ended with the appellate decision, says she hopes the government drops the case. “I just hope he gets a decent attorney,” Vasco says, “and the government looks at all this and says, ‘Why bother.’ “

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