The Georgia Supreme Court has tossed out a conviction over a judge’s words encouraging a man to plead guilty to charges related to a drive-by shooting of rapper Lil Wayne’s tour bus.
It was like a line in a Clint Eastwood movie, when detective Dirty Harry intimidates a suspect by daring him to shoot, saying, “Go ahead. Make my day,” criminal defense attorney Steve Sadow told the high court during oral arguments in February.
Except instead of, “Make my day,” Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark said, “Be my guest.”
Jimmy Carlton Winfrey was reluctant to take the deal on the table for charges of shooting up Lil Wayne’s bus after a concert following a dispute with other rappers. If Winfrey pleaded guilty to violating Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism Prevention Act, he would get a 10-year prison sentence. He was worried about his chances for parole, according to court records.
“This opportunity is going away. Go to trial and you get convicted, there’s not going to be any of me being concerned about when you parole out,” the judge told Winfrey, according to the opinion’s quotes of the transcript. “And I would also take into account that you didn’t take responsibility for what a jury says you did, and I won’t worry about your parole eligibility. And if you want to look around and see what happens to people in gangs in Cobb County, Georgia, you can look at what happened last week to the guy who went to trial and got convicted and pulled—was it 50 years?”
“One hundred to serve 50, judge,” the prosecutors answered.
“My reputation is not that I’m an easy judge. I know it. You know it. The whole community knows it,” Staley Clark said. “So if that’s what you want to go up against, be my guest.”
With that line, the judge crossed beyond instruction into coercion, Sadow argued.
On Friday, seven of the nine justices agreed with Sadow and reversed Winfrey’s convictions. Winfrey will now be moved out of prison and taken back to Cobb County to start the case over, with his guilty plea withdrawn. Sadow said he will ask for a new judge and a bond hearing so his client can be released while his case is pending.
“The charges remain, and the case will be returned to the trial court to be resolved, either through a new plea or a trial,” Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds spokeswoman Kim Isaza said Friday by email.
The high court’s opinion reversed not only the plea but the Georgia Court of Appeals decision affirming it.
Writing for the majority was Justice Britt Grant—who is on President Donald Trump’s list of choices for the U.S. Supreme Court even while her nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit awaits confirmation by the Senate.
“Let us be plain: If a trial judge communicates—either explicitly or implicitly—to a criminal defendant that his sentence will be harsher if he rejects a plea deal and is found guilty at trial, then Rule 33.5 (A) has been violated and the plea may be found involuntary,” Grant said. The rule says judges should not participate in plea discussions.
“The key distinction, then, is whether the trial judge threatens that a sentence will be harsher after conviction if a plea offer is rejected, or advises that the sentence may be harsher—the former should not occur, and it is of little significance whether the trial court accomplishes that communication with explicit or implicit language,” Grant said.
“The comments in this case crossed the line. The trial court made repeated statements that referenced the judge’s own proclivity to sentence harshly, along with other statements strongly implying that, if Winfrey were found guilty by a jury, his sentence would be (not could be) harsher than that recommended in the plea offer,” Grant said. “The implication was unmistakable—if Winfrey rejected the plea offer and the jury found him guilty at trial, he would be sentenced more harshly.”
Justice Keith Blackwell—also on Trump’s high court list—dissented with an opinion joined by Justice Nels Peterson. Blackwell disagreed with Grant over whether Winfrey’s guilty plea was involuntary.
“Judicial commentary of this sort certainly could render a subsequent guilty plea involuntary, but only if it actually induces the accused to enter his plea. The record in this case does not establish that the judicial commentary in question induced Winfrey to enter his plea, and I cannot, therefore, go along with the majority and conclude that his plea was involuntary,” Blackwell said.
But, even in dissenting, Blackwell agreed with Grant that “the statements by the trial judge about her propensity to impose especially harsh sentences crossed the line drawn by Uniform Superior Court Rule 33.5 (A), insofar as her statements impliedly threatened Jimmy Carlton Winfrey with a harsher sentence if he went to trial and were found guilty.”
The case is Winfrey v. State, No. S17G1270.