Plea Vacated and Case Remitted for a Hearing Before a Different Justice When Cooperation Agreement Not Honored
Mr. Owensford and a codefendant were charged with numerous counts of predatory sexual assault, attempted second-degree murder, and related acts that they allegedly committed in concert. Mr. Owensford decided to enter into a plea and cooperation agreement and to testify against the codefendant at trial. The cooperation agreement provided that Mr. Owensford would plead guilty to all counts in the indictment in exchange for a prison term of 75 years to life, but that if he “provided full and complete cooperation, including truthful testimony,” he would be permitted to withdraw his plea and instead plead guilty to one count of first-degree rape with a recommended sentence of 15 years.
Mr. Owensford pled guilty to all counts in accordance with the cooperation agreement. During the codefendant’s trial, prosecutors questioned Mr. Owensford about evidence he had not seen before, leading to him providing additional information that he had not thought was relevant. Believing this information was problematic to the timeline of events in the codefendant’s trial, the prosecutors moved to dismiss the indictment against the codefendant and claimed that Mr. Owensford had breached the cooperation agreement.
The trial court rejected defense counsel’s request for a hearing and determined that Mr. Owensford had breached the cooperation agreement, stated the court was “released from the promise[d] sentence,” added that the People “unilaterally” determine whether a cooperation agreement was breached, and sentenced Mr. Owensford to a sentence of 25 years to life.
The Appellate Division determined the trial court had “abdicated its responsibility to determine whether a material breach occurred.” It noted that the trial court’s failure to hold a hearing or conduct a sufficient inquiry was error and that Mr. Owensford and defense counsel were not provided with a sufficient opportunity to refute the claim that the cooperation agreement was breached. The plea was vacated and the matter remitted for a hearing before a different Justice.
Lynn W. L. Fahey & David P. Greenberg represented Mr. Owensford