Reminders to Criminal Defendants: Withdrawing Guilty Pleas After Sentencing Requires Extraordinary Proof; “Not Guilty by Reason of Mental Illness” Plea May Be Entered Along with Traditional “Not Guilty” Plea

The Wyoming Supreme Court recently issued two opinions that serve as important reminders to criminal defendants in Wyoming. First, a criminal defendant cannot withdraw a “no contest” or “guilty” plea after he is sentenced based only on the State’s sentencing argument about the quality or condition of the evidence against that defendant. Second, a criminal defendant who believes he may not be not guilty due to a mental disease or defect that affected his ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law can enter a traditional “not guilty” plea and a “not guilty by reason of mental illness” plea simultaneously.

This first reminder comes from Sena v. State of Wyoming, 2022 WY 98, which was issued on August 17, 2022. There, the defendant entered into a global “no contest” plea agreement on several charges. At his sentencing hearing, the State made a comment about the difficulties it had experienced with getting in touch with witnesses in the case. The defendant took this to mean the State had deceived him into accepting a plea agreement and substantial prison time despite the State lacking evidence to convict the defendant. Accordingly, through new counsel, the defendant moved to withdraw his no contest pleas.

The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to withdraw his pleas after a hearing where the defendant’s new attorney did not present any new evidence. The trial court concluded that the defendant had failed to demonstrate the need to correct any manifest injustice–the standard for withdrawing a guilty or no contest plea after a person is sentenced under Rule 32(d) of the Wyoming Rules of Criminal Procedure.

The Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny the defendant’s motion to withdraw his plea. There, it quoted from its prior caselaw to remind the defendant and other similarly situated defendants that “[m]anifest injustice contemplates a situation that is unmistakable or indisputable, was not foreseeable, and affects the substantial rights of a party.” Sena, 2022 WY 98, ¶ 18 (quoting Chapman v. State, 2013 WY 57, ¶ 57, 300 P.3d 864, 875 (Wyo. 2013)). Wyoming’s post-sentencing plea withdrawal rule is intended “to address a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice or an omission inconsistent with the rudimentary demands of fair procedure.” Sena, ¶ 18. The defendant bears the burden of demonstrating manifest injustice in a post-sentencing plea withdrawal hearing. Id.

This second reminder comes from Buckingham v. State of Wyoming, 2022 WY 99, issued on August 19, 2022. There, a defendant sought to modify his bond by presenting evidence from a psychiatrist concerning rare side effects caused by a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant called Paxil where a person can become impulsive, agitated, irritable, and psychotic. The defendant argued that his Paxil usage caused his violent behaviors and that he was not a danger to the community because he stopped taking the medication. Ultimately, however, the defendant did not enter a “not guilty by reason of mental illness” (NGMI) plea to the criminal charges based on his Paxil usage. He merely pleaded “not guilty” and proceeded to trial on the charges against him.

A jury found the defendant guilty of seven of eight charges against him. The defendant later moved for a new trial arguing that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel because trial counsel did not advise him to enter an NGMI plea in addition to a not guilty plea and make related arguments about the effects of Paxil on the defendant’s criminal culpability.

The trial court denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial and the Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed that ruling. See Buckingham, 2022 WY 99, ¶ 1, 33. In so doing, the Wyoming Supreme Court issued the following important reminder:

We do not decide whether trial counsel’s performance was deficient. However, to the extent trial counsel acknowledged he did not know Mr. Buckingham could have entered both a not guilty plea and a NGMI plea at arraignment and did not realize that taking a prescription drug could amount to involuntary intoxication, both are well settled under Wyoming law. Wyoming Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(a)(1)(B) allows a defendant to simultaneously enter a not guilty plea and a NGMI plea, and Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-1202(b) (LexisNexis 2021) provides that intoxication is not self-induced if it was caused by a substance the defendant took “pursuant to medical advice.”

Buckingham, ¶ 27 n.2

So, today’s lessons — (1) if you are trying to withdraw your plea after you are sentenced, you must present extraordinary evidence showing that something went majorly wrong during your case and that something was NOT foreseeable; (2) you can enter a “not guilty” plea and a NGMI plea at the same time. If you were taking new medication and you suspect your medication caused some erratic and criminal behavior, notify your attorney!

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