Kentucky judge must consider request to withdraw guilty plea

MIDDLESBORO, Ky. (AP) — A Kentucky judge with a history of errors involving a defendant’s right to a fair trial was ordered on Friday to reconsider his actions last year against a man who claimed not to have seen key evidence in his case, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals said Bell Circuit Court Judge Robert Costanzo erred by not taking seriously James Burchfield’s request to withdraw his guilty plea. Burchfield had been charged by Middlesboro police in 2017 with driving under the influence, failure to signal, fleeing or evading police, possession of a controlled substance and persistent felony offender.

Burchfield pleaded guilty but later learned that a blood test after his arrest failed to show proof of intoxication, according to the appellate court decision. Burchfield said he would not have pleaded guilty had he known about the results. He is trying to get a commercial driver’s license to work as a truck driver, and a DUI conviction makes that impossible.

At a final sentencing hearing on March 31, 2020, Costanzo told Burchfield he could not withdraw his plea. The judge sentenced Burchfield to six months in jail and five months on probation. On Friday, the Court of Appeals ordered Costanzo to vacate his final judgment in the case and reconsider Burchfield’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea.

In 2019, the Court of Appeals chided the same judge for ordering a poor, mentally ill man to serve as his own defense lawyer during a jury trial, over the defendant’s loud protests. The jury convicted that man on a firearms charge after just 20 minutes of deliberation and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

Defendants have a right to counsel, the appeals court reminded Costanzo in their order reversing his decision. That same year, the Court of Appeals reversed Costanzo for a separate case involving criminal defendants representing themselves in his courtroom.

In another decision, this past May, the Court of Appeals sent back a different case to Costanzo after Steven Turner said his lawyer failed to explain that his prison sentences would run consecutively, one after the other, and not concurrently. Costanzo denied Turner’s request for an ineffective counsel hearing, but the appeals court ordered him to hold the hearing.

Speaking by telephone on Friday, Costanzo said he is comfortable with his actions in Burchfield’s case.

“I went through all of the colloquy with him about how he was making this guilty plea freely and voluntarily,” Costanzo said.

Burchfield’s lawyer for his appeal, Steven Buck of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy in Frankfort, praised Friday’s decision.

“We’re happy. This is the appropriate remedy,” Buck said. “This whole opinion is about protecting the process around making the plea decision.”

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