Lawyer pushed client to plead guilty

Conviction overturned

Rosie Mullaley
Published on June 15, 2012
Averill Baker

A man found guilty of breaking into a building supplies store will get a new trial because his lawyer, Averill Baker, pressured him into pleading guilty.

That was the decision handed down recently by the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal in the case of Christopher Wade Sutton.

The three-member panel ruled this week to have Sutton’s conviction on the break-and-enter charge overturned and his sentence reduced by more than half.

Sutton was originally given a 30-month jail term, but the appeals board voted to have that decreased to 14 months.

The decision was the result of an appeal filed by Sutton, who asked that his guilty plea on the break-and-enter charge be withdrawn.

He said the plea was involuntary and that he had been pressed to do it by his lawyer, Baker.

Sutton said Baker misled him into believing that if he pleaded guilty, he would likely avoid jail time.

Instead, he ended up with a federal prison term.

“I never admitted this offence to Ms. Baker. In fact, I denied it,” Sutton wrote in his appeal.

“I never asked her to negotiate a plea agreement concerning this and the other outstanding charges against me.

“I only pleaded guilty to the break and entry because she said that I would receive a conditional sentence for this and the other charges and that a trial for the break-and-enter (charge) would be postponed to the new year while I stayed on remand.”

In the spring of 2011, Sutton had 35 charges pending against him, including the break-in that reportedly happened May 18, 2010, at Greenwood Building Supplies store in Lethbridge, Bonavista Bay.

Other charges included theft, assault, mischief and breaches of court orders.

In August 2010, Sutton through Baker, pleaded guilty to nine of the charges. The Crown withdrew 26 others.

At the sentencing hearing, Baker did not dispute the facts regarding the Greenwood break-in when read in court by the Crown prosecutor.

Baker asked the judge to consider a sentence of time served or a conditional sentence. The Crown sought a prison term of four years.

The judge gave Sutton a 30-month jail term. With straight-time credit for the time he had already served in custody, it left two years and 12 days on the term.

Sutton’s appeal was argued last month by legal aid counsel Derek Hogan. Baker did not show.

Sutton had noted many problems with Baker, which he said led to the guilty plea.

He said he often had difficulty reaching her “because she was distracted by her personal problems.”

When he finally did reach her, he said Baker told him, “Your best bet is to take the deal.”

He said when she told him the Crown was seeking a four-year sentence, she said, “I can work wonders with Judge (Patrick) Kennedy. You’re lucky you don’t have Judge (Harold) Porter.”

Sutton said Baker told him, “I can get you time served and a conditional sentence. … Let’s plead guilty and go for house arrest and get this over with.”

In sentencing, Sutton said he was confused as to just what charges he was pleading guilty to, and which ones were being withdrawn.

“However, I said nothing in court because I was still convinced that I would receive house arrest,” Sutton said.

In rendering their decision, members of the appeals panel —  Justice Malcolm Rowe, Justice Gale Welsh and Justice Charles White — said, “This is not a competence of counsel case. Rather, it relates to whether a guilty plea was voluntary.”

They concluded it wasn’t, and that it was a result of Baker’s actions.

“Mr. Sutton was subject to undue pressure to plead guilty to the Greenwood break and enter and, thus, his plea was not voluntary,” the panel’s written decision states.

“That being so, he is permitted to withdraw it. It follows that the conviction based on the guilty plea cannot stand. The appeal must be allowed and a new trial ordered.”

A date for the new trial has yet to be set.

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