In a recent case, an appellate court considered whether a judge could increase another judge’s sentence that was less than what was agreed upon in a plea agreement. The case arose in 1989 when a man was indicted for two first-degree murders and other major crimes. The State planned to ask for a life sentence without possibility of parole.
The defendant entered a guilty plea in exchange for a deal. He admitted that he and another man had planned to kill whatever they found in a particular apartment and steal the cocaine inside. They actually did steal cocaine and jewelry from the apartment. Each of the men shot and killed a person.
The plea deal’s terms were that the defendant would testify at the other man’s trial and enter guilty pleas as to three of the counts. In exchange, he would be sentenced to life imprisonment with all but 20 years suspended, and the State would withdraw its notice of intent to seek life without possibility of parole. The defendant’s sentencing was delayed, and he testified against the man.
At the hearing, the court agreed the defendant had fulfilled his side of the deal. His attorney put the deal on the record but mixed up the counts. The prosecutor confirmed the inaccurate agreement. As a result, the man got life imprisonment for the murder charge and a second life imprisonment sentence suspended for all but 20 years with the second sentence running consecutive to the first.
The defendant filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence and credit against time spent in custody more than 20 years later. He asked the court to correct the sentence such that if the court agreed, his total sentence would be life, suspended all but 40 years, less than the sentence in the plea agreement.
The State filed a cross-motion to correct. The court re-sentenced the defendant according to the sentence agreed upon on the record in 1990.
The defendant appealed. The pertinent rule was Maryland Rule 4-345(a), which allows the court to correct an illegal sentence at any time. It provides, among other things, that the parties can submit a proposed plea agreement to the judge who can accept or reject the plea and can approve the agreement or decide its approval after investigation.
The defendant argued that his life sentence was an illegal sentence because it exceeded the terms of the binding plea agreement. He argued that it was proper for the court to reduce the sentence on the life sentence with all but 20 years suspended. The State and the court agreed. However, he also went further and argued that the original sentence imposed on count III was not illegal even though it was less than the sentence agreed upon in the plea deal.
The issue in the case was whether a sentence below a binding plea agreement was an illegal sentence. The appellate court explained that there was no reason to treat a sentence that exceeds a plea deal differently than a sentence that was less than the plea deal.
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