TRENTON - A state Appeals Court has upheld a Superior Court decision not to allow a defendant to back out of a plea deal, under which he faced up to four years in prison, along with three years of parole supervision.
According to the court decision, Joseph F. Amabile was in Sea Isle City with friends July 3, 2016, when they decided to buy marijuana.
According to court records, Amabile admitted to a judge that while he was with co-defendants, Vincenzo Severia and Brenden Burns, they decided to steal the pot from the dealer. The three knew each other from Pennsylvania, according to transcripts cited in the court decision.
Burns brought a firearm from Pennsylvania, while Severia had a stun gun. They arranged to meet someone with marijuana for sale. According to the court documents, Burns brandished the gun.
The Appeals Court decision includes a transcript of a recording of Amabile’s plea hearing:
“Defense Counsel: And did the three of you take the marijuana from them without payment? Defendant: Yes.
Defense Counsel: I believe that's sufficient.”
A Cape May County grand jury returned an indictment, charging Amabile with first-degree robbery and second-degree conspiracy to commit robbery. His defense attorney filed several motions in the case, but, in the meantime, he entered a plea agreement to plead guilty to second-degree conspiracy to commit robbery, with a promise from prosecutors to recommend sentencing under less severe guidelines, for a prison term that would not exceed four years.
A new attorney for Amabile later tried to reverse the guilty plea made as part of the deal with prosecutors, filing a new motion Sept. 8, 2017. A trial judge heard the motion a few days later.
Amabile said he only met with his former attorney for a few minutes before each court appearance. He claimed his first attorney did not take into consideration his history of mental illness, his intoxication at the time of the robbery, nor that he later claimed he was not aware of the robbery plans.
Reviewing the case with his new attorney, Amabile told the court he decided it would be unjust to allow the previous plea to stand.
“I am not guilty, and I want my day in court,” he said, according to court documents.
The judge said no. According to the recent appellate decision by Judges Jose Fuentes and Francis Vernoia, the original judge applied a four-prong test established by Supreme Court precedence: whether the defendant has a ‘colorable' claim of innocence, meaning a legitimate claim, the nature and strength of the reason for requesting withdrawal, the existence of a plea bargain, and whether withdrawal would mean an unfair prejudice to the state, or an unfair advantage to the accused.
“The judge ultimately found: ‘Mr. Amabile does not base his reason on a claim of innocence; rather, he bases his reason for withdrawal because he alleges he felt pressured into taking the plea and claims he did not review the evidence before him,’" reads the Nov. 12 Appellate Court decision.
The judge also found that Amabile appeared in court on eight separate occasions, giving him plenty of time to review the evidence. The defendant was asked if he had questions, and whether he was satisfied with his legal representation.
Also at play is New Jersey’s No Early Release Act (NERA), which means a defendant must serve 85% of a term. The act also means he would face three years’ parole supervision after release.
Amabile’s attorney argues that was not properly explained to his client.
According to the appellate decision, he was not directly told of the three years of parole supervision, but with the help of his attorney, he filled out and signed a form that made that provision clear. Also, the judges found, there is no indication that was material to his decision to plead guilty.
In a footnote to the decision, the judges state defendants should be told of the consequences of a guilty plea.
“Although we conclude here that the judge's failure to address defendant directly at the plea hearing and inform him of the relevant mandatory period of parole supervision under NERA did not constitute reversible error, we do not imply that trial judges are absolved from this responsibility. Before accepting a defendant's guilty plea, trial judges must expressly find on the record that the defendant was apprised and understood the penal consequences of his or her guilty plea,” the footnote reads.
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