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Guilty Pleas – Post-Sentencing Plea Withdrawal: Discovery of Exculpatory Evidence

State v. Michael R. Sturgeon, 231 Wis.2d 487, 605 N.W.2d 589 (Ct. App. 1999)
For Sturgeon: Terry Evan Williams.

Issue/Holding: To prevail on a motion to withdraw guilty plea based on postplea discovery of exculpatory information, a defendant must prove (a) the existence of exculpatory evidence (b) in the exclusive control of the prosecution (c) unknown to the defense, the withholding of which (d) caused the guilty plea.

Sturgeon pleaded guilty to burglary, based on the strength of testimony at the preliminary hearing of his codefendant and of a police officer who claimed that Sturgeon had confessed. A discovery demand produced a police report detailing this confession. After conviction, Sturgeon obtained other information not in the report, indicating that his supposed “confession” to the police actually denied knowledge that his companions were committing the burglary, and was therefore in fact exculpatory. The trial court denied the resultant motion to withdraw plea; the court of appeals reverses.

When a plea withdrawal request is based on violation of a constitutional right, the defendant is entitled to the withdrawal by showing violation of constitutional right; causing him/her to plead guilty; where he/she was unaware of the potential constitutional challenge. The appellate court reviews these determinations de novo, giving deference to underlying findings of historical fact. ¶¶15-16. The withheld evidence – denial of scienter – clearly is exculpatory; the real question is whether it was in the exclusive possession of the state. ¶¶18-21. The police are an arm of the prosecution. And, though Sturgeon had the opportunity to cross-examine relevant police witnesses at both prelim and suppression hearings, the limited purpose of these hearings gave him neither incentive nor right to delve into discovery-related areas that might have revealed the critical police report or exculpatory testimony. ¶¶22-25. The fact that Sturgeon himself knew what he’d told the police doesn’t defeat the idea of exclusive possession: “we see a marked difference between a defendant’s exculpatory version of an event presented to his lawyer and the fact that the prosecution has in its possession evidence which independently corroborates that version.” ¶11. Sturgeon therefore makes out a claim of constitutional violation of withheld exculpatory evidence. And, largely because he didn’t know of the existence of the exculpatory, corroborative police information, he also satisfies the requirement that he was unaware of the potential constitutional challenge. ¶¶28-30.

This leaves “causation” of the guilty plea, which the court defines to mean “a reasonable probability that, but for the failure to disclose, the defendant would have refused to plead and would have insisted on going to trial.” ¶35. Postconviction counsel astutely created a record that Sturgeon felt he had no choice but to plead guilty in light of his confession and his codefendant’s testimony. Stressing this fact, along with the importance of the withheld evidence, the court holds as a matter of law that Sturgeon is entitled to plea-withdrawal.

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