When Can You Withdraw a Guilty Plea in Texas?
In many criminal cases, the defendant chooses to plead guilty to the alleged offense. But a defendant also has a constitutionally protected right to withdraw a guilty plea and seek a jury trial, provided they do so “in a timely manner.”
So what is considered “timely”? According to a 2004 decision from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, if there is a jury trial, the defendant may withdraw a prior guilty plea as to any specific count “at any time before the jury retires to deliberate its verdict.” If the defendant opted for a bench trial, a guilty plea may be withdrawn at any point “until the court pronounces judgment or takes the case under advisement.”
Houston Court Orders New Trial for Man Charged with Sex Offense
A recent decision from the Texas 1st District Court of Appeals here in Houston, Mendoza v. State, provides a helpful illustration of how the law is supposed to work in this area. In this case, a grand jury indicted the defendant on 13 charges, all stemming from the alleged sexual abuse of a child. Prior to a jury trial, the prosecution abandoned one charge. The defendant then pleaded guilty to one charge–indecency with a child–and not guilty to the remaining 12 counts.
The defendant decided to testify at trial. Contrary to his prior guilty plea, he denied the factual allegations of that charge. Before the jury was discharged, the defendant’s attorney argued that his client “essentially retracted that guilty plea in his testimony” and moved to withdraw the plea. The judge denied the motion, stating it “already accepted the plea.” The judge then instructed the jury to find the defendant guilty on the indecency charge. The jury subsequently convicted the defendant on the remaining 11 charges.
The Court of Appeals said the defendant as entitled to a new trial on the indecency charge. The prosecution acknowledged the trial judge erred in refusing to allow the defendant to withdraw his prior guilty plea, which he had a constitutional right to do. And the 1st District said this was not a “harmless” error. Rather, the trial judge had “short-circuited the fact finding process.”
Although the prosecution said there was “overwhelming” evidence of the defendant’s guilt, the appeals court noted an error is only harmless when there is “no evidence” suggesting the defendant “was not guilty.” Here, the defendant’s testimony “created a fact issue for resolution by the factfinder–the jury,” even if it was “improbable” that he was actually innocent.
Contact a Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer Today
Cases like this one highlight the importance of working with an experienced Texas criminal defense lawyer. Many defendants are too quick to enter a guilty plea because they do not fully understand the charge or the legal process. If you find yourself in this situation and need qualified assistance, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston, or League City today, 281-280-0100.