C.A. 3rd

The Third Appellate District affirmed a judgment of conviction. In the published portion of its opinion, the court held that where a defendant agreed to testify truthfully against a codefendant as a condition of a plea agreement and thereafter made material misrepresentations of fact, the successful conviction of the codefendant did not bar the prosecution from rescinding the plea agreement based on the defendant’s breach.

After discovering the body of Jeanette Mariedth, police discovered her wrecked car some distance away. In the car, the police discovered a pair of white gloves. The gloves were submitted for DNA testing.

Before that testing was completed, police arrested Scott Varner and Joanna Peterson. They were charged with premeditated murder, second degree robbery, kidnapping for robbery, kidnapping for carjacking, and carjacking.

Peterson gave a taped interview, in which she acknowledged having been present when Mariedth was killed. According to Peterson, Varner had asked Mariedth to give him a ride. Peterson, who had just met Varner, and knew Mariedth only slightly, accompanied them. When they had driven some distance, Varner directed Mariedth to stop the car. He then suffocated and beat her to death. Meanwhile, Peterson was “curled up in a ball” in the backseat.

Varner, who did not know how to drive, then ordered Peterson to drive him back to town. When he demanded to drive the car himself, he went off the road and the car was wrecked.

Peterson admitted that her fingerprints would be found inside the car because she did not wear gloves. She stated that the pants she was wearing when she was arrested were the same ones she had been wearing in the car.

The day after Peterson’s statement was recorded, she entered a plea agreement in which she pleaded guilty to second degree murder in exchange for the dismissal of the remaining charges and a sentence of 15 years to life in prison. As part of the plea agreement, Peterson agreed to testify fully and truthfully at all stages of Varner’s trial and at any interview. The agreement was premised on her taped statement, which she expressly affirmed was “true, correct, and complete.”

After Peterson entered into the agreement, the prosecutor learned that Peterson’s DNA had been found inside one of the white gloves taken from the victim’s car.

On direct examination at Varner’s trial, Peterson gave testimony consistent with her prior statement. On cross-examination, however, Varner’s attorney demonstrated inconsistencies in Peterson’s testimony about the circumstances and extent of her drug use, and how well she knew Mariedth, intimating that Mariedth gave them a ride because she knew Peterson. He elicited that Peterson had changed her pants after the murder, lied to the police about the clothing she was wearing at the time of the murder, lied at trial about the pants in violation of her plea agreement, and he intimated she only admitted to changing her pants after she learned there was no DNA evidence linking her to the murder.

Varner was convicted.

The prosecutor thereafter filed a petition to rescind the plea agreement based on Peterson’s dishonesty.

The trial court agreed that Peterson had made materially false statements and vacated the plea. Thereafter, Peterson pleaded guilty to second degree murder and robbery in exchange for a sentence of 17 years to life in prison.

The court of appeal affirmed, holding that the trial court did not err in concluding that Peterson had made material misrepresentations.

The court rejected Peterson’s contention that any misrepresentations were not “material” because they did not prevent the prosecution from obtaining Varner’s conviction. To the contrary, the court found, Peterson’s plea agreement obligated her to testify truthfully not only about Varner’s involvement in the murder, but also about her own. The record showed that she failed to do so. To the contrary, the record demonstrated that Peterson (1) falsely denied wearing the white gloves found in Mariedth’s car even though her DNA was inside them; (2) was not credible concerning her prior relationship with Mariedth and that they may have selected Mariedth as a victim based on this prior relationship; (3) lied about which pants she was wearing at the time of the homicide until she learned there was no DNA evidence on the pants linking her to the homicide; (4) lied repeatedly to the police; and (5) was evasive and inconsistent about her prior drug history. On this record, the trial court did not err in setting aside the plea agreement.

The court found further that the prosecution’s use of Peterson’s testimony at trial did not bar it from rescinding the plea agreement. The court explained that where a plea agreement obligates a defendant to make full and truthful disclosures, partial disclosure by a defendant may constitute a material and substantial breach, such that the prosecution is released from its obligations. The fact that the prosecution might have benefited from Peterson’s partial performance under the plea agreement did not bar it from moving to vacate the plea agreement based on her material and substantial breach.