Appeals court upholds lower decision on harassment case | BrainerdDispatch.com | Brainerd, Minnesota

Appeals court upholds lower decision on harassment case

Posted: January 17, 2013 - 10:43pm

When a man wanted to withdraw his guilty plea in district court, saying he was coerced into it, the Minnesota Court of Appeals looked at his case.

After a review, the appeals court affirmed the Crow Wing County District Court’s decision.

Gerald Villella Jr. entered an Alford guilty plea to two counts of harassing another with intent to influence or tamper with a judicial proceeding. Villella challenged the district court’s denial of his post-conviction petition to withdraw his plea, arguing his plea was neither accurate nor voluntary.

In April 2010, the state charged Villella with the harassment counts. The charges arose out of Villella’s actions against a district court judge and the guardian ad litem assigned to his child-custody case.

“On the eve of trial, Villella’s attorney Christopher Petros alerted the district court that Villella and the state had reached a plea agreement: Villella would enter an Alford guilty plea to both harassment counts and receive a stay of adjudication, serve five years’ probation and 10 days in jail, and avoid any contact with his victims.”

At the plea and sentencing hearings, the district court confirmed Villella heard and understood the terms of the agreement. The district court also confirmed Villella had time to confer with Petros and was satisfied with Petros’s representation.

“Villella’s written guilty-plea petition repeated the statements, and agreed to waive his trial rights,” the appeals court stated. “(Villella) stated that he understood the plea agreement and would abide by it.”

The district court asked Villella if he believed if the issue went to the jury and the jury believed the state’s witnesses, there was a “substantial likelihood” he would be found guilty of the charge.

The appeals court reported, “Villella acknowledged that he accepted the plea agreement to ‘take the benefit of the bargain.’”

In July 2011, Villella retained attorney Richard Kenly and filed a petition for post-conviction relief, seeking to withdraw his guilty plea. Villella alleged he was coerced by Petros into entering the original plea and had been given ineffective legal assistance.

In a post-conviction petition, Villella’s position wavered, the appeals court reported.

Villella’s second attorney, Kenly, stated Villella had become frustrated with the probationary terms restricting his firearms possession and his travel and that, but for those restrictions, Villella’s plea was knowing and voluntary.

“But on cross-examination, Villella stated that Petros had pressured him into the plea agreement,” the court reported. “Kenly then questioned Villella again, and Villella agreed that he would withdraw his request to withdraw his guilty plea in exchange for different probationary terms.”

Kenly offered to draft an order with a new agreement maintaining Villella’s guilt but with less restrictive terms of probation. Two months later, however, Kenly instead informed the district court Villella again wanted to withdraw his guilty plea. In a second hearing, Villella said he was innocent of the charges and repeated he was frustrated with his probation conditions.

The state submitted an affidavit sworn by Petros stating the attorney discussed a plea offer with Villella.

“Petros explained to Villella the consequences of a felony conviction ... and he warned Villella of the jail sentence he would likely receive if found guilty. Petros ‘strongly advised [Villella] against a trial and to take the deal.’”

The district court found Villella’s Alford plea to be “accurate, voluntary and intelligent. It also found that Villella failed to develop or offer evidence to support his ineffective assistance of counsel claim.”

By state law, a defendant may withdraw a guilty plea at any time, even after sentencing, if it is necessary to correct a manifest injustice. But the individual bears the burden to establish the guilty plea was invalid.

In the complaint against Villella that resulted in his guilty plea, his victims stated he “was stalking them and their families and (they) believed that Villella was attempting to influence their official decisions.”

In one letter from Villella to the judge in his family court case, Villella asked the judge to reopen the case and emphasized his knowledge of the judge’s out-of-court activity. In the letter, Villella was quoted telling the judge to reconsider who the child in question was better off with and perhaps the judge should think of that during early morning workouts at the YMCA.

“Villella sent an email to the guardian ad litem requesting the guardian’s educational, professional, and medical history, and then mentioned that he observed her son playing basketball,” the court reported.

“That Villella changed his mind about pleading guilty — which is the essence of the circumstances based on the district court’s factually supported findings — does not constitute a manifest injustice,” the appeals court decided. “We hold that the district court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that Villella’s plea was voluntary and accurate.”