United States v. Kenneth James (3rd Cir. June 2019)

Criminal Procedure/Guilty Pleas – Legal innocence as well as factual innocence are valid bases for seeking to withdraw a guilty plea, but the defendant must establish a sufficient basis for showing innocence to merit withdrawing a plea.

Kenneth James moved to withdraw his guilty plea to conspiracy to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine based on his sale of cocaine to a confidential informant. While James gave the standard answers in the change of plea colloquy, he argued that he pleaded guilty under duress, based on his counsel’s lack of investigation and statements that James would be convicted at trial, and that his counsel did not sufficiently explain the plea agreement to him.

New counsel was appointed and asserted that James’ guilty plea should be withdrawn because he was entrapped by a confidential informant. The district court denied the motion to withdraw the guilty plea, noting that the entrapment defense was an assertion of “legal innocence” and not “factual innocence,” and anyway, James failed to provide details on how he was entrapped.

First, the Court held that James did not waive his right to appeal his conviction by entering into the plea agreement. The Court emphasized that this was “not the typical case” since the plea agreement stated that the defendant waived his right to appeal his sentence but had no statements regarding the defendant’s conviction. Accordingly, James did not waive his right to appeal the denial of his motion to withdraw his guilty plea.

Turning next to the motion to withdraw, the Court recited the three relevant factors—1) whether the defendant has asserted his innocence, 2) the strength of the defendant’s reasons for withdrawing his plea, and 3) whether the government would be prejudiced by the withdrawal.

The Court began its analysis noting, and clarifying for the first time in the Third Circuit, that James was “quite right” that “legal innocence alone can support withdrawal of a guilty plea,” and that the district court was wrong to emphasize factual innocence as the required element.

Still, the Court affirmed the district court’s denial, since “bald assertions of innocence are insufficient,” and James had failed to allege a sufficient basis for his entrapment defense. Without a “credible claim” of innocence, James failed to make a sufficient showing under the first factor. Regarding the other factors, the Court rejected James’s contentions that he was under duress, entered the plea unknowingly, and received prejudicial and ineffective assistance of counsel, the Court excused the Government from having to show prejudice given the lack of the other factors.

Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands

Opinion by Jordan, joined by Smith and Rendell

Click here to read the opinion.


Tom Church

Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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