People For the American Way

Trump Judges Try to Prevent Withdrawal of Guilty Plea Despite Court Error: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

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Trump Judges Try to Prevent Withdrawal of Guilty Plea Despite Court Error: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

In January 2020, Trump Fourth Circuit judges Allison Rushing and Marvin Quattlebaum dissented from a full court ruling in a criminal case in which the validity of a man’s guilty plea was under question. The majority ruled to vacate the sentence, which the man contended was tainted due to the lower court’s failure to inform him that the minimum duration of his prison sentence was five to 10 years longer than he expected. Conservative judge J. Harvie Wilkinson and Trump judge Julius Richardson joined the majority opinion in U.S. v. Lockhart.

Jesmene Lockhart, a man with three prior robbery convictions, was arrested for possession of a firearm. Understanding that his likely sentence would be between four and five years, he pleaded guilty. At his sentencing hearing, he was formally advised that his maximum sentence would be 10 years. But because of his previous convictions and federal law, he received a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years, which neither the prosecutors nor the judge told him about when he pleaded guilty.

On appeal, a new lawyer maintained that Lockhart would not have pleaded guilty if he had known about the 15-year mandatory minimum. In addition, before the case went to the full court, the Supreme Court issued a decision explaining that to obtain a conviction under the firearm possession law, the government must prove that the person both knew that he had a firearm and that his prior conviction made it illegal to possess one. Lockhart contended that he did not know that he could not have a gun, and that no one explained that element of the crime to him before he pleaded guilty.

Seven judges on the Fourth Circuit ruled that Lockhart’s sentence must be vacated in light of the “plain error” by the court below and that he should have a chance to contest the charges against him. But Judge Rushing dissented, joined by Judge Quattlebaum and two others. Although the dissenters acknowledged the “plain error” in the lower court, they claimed that Lockhart had not shown a “reasonable probability” that he would not have entered the guilty plea if the mistakes had not occurred.

The majority strongly disagreed. Not only was it “reasonable for Lockhart to think” that he would receive a sentence in the five to 10 year range based on what he was told at the sentencing hearing, but he also believed that he could have received a shorter sentence if he pleaded guilty. But the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence “severely restrict[ed]” Lockhart from any possible sentencing adjustments. Rather than entering a guilty plea with little or no benefit, the majority explained, it was much more likely that Lockhart “could have exercised his right to require the government to prove at trial all the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.” Particularly given the Supreme Court’s recent decision, the government would have had to prove that Lockhart “knew” that he was “banned from possessing a firearm” because of his prior conviction, which he contended he did not. The majority concluded that the errors “seriously affect the fairness” and “integrity” of the proceedings against Lockhart, and vacated the conviction and sent the case back to the lower court.

If Rushing’s dissent were the law, however, Lockhart would not have had the chance to contest the charges against him. Instead, he would have been required to serve a 15-year sentence that he was never informed about. Fortunately, the majority ruled otherwise.

NOTE: According to a federal public defender involved in Lockhart’s defense, Lockhart chose a retrial on remand and was acquitted in June 2020. Instead of serving out the improper 15-year sentence as urged by Rushing and Quattlebaum, Lockhart is “now home with his family and ready for a fresh start.”