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COA reverses guilty plea to Class A felony child molesting

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Because a defendant repeatedly maintained his innocence to Class A felony child molesting at his guilty plea hearing but also pleaded guilty to the charge, the trial court erred in accepting his plea, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled.

In James R. Johnson v. State of Indiana, No. 44A04-1105-PC-264, James Johnson was charged with Class A felony child molesting for allegedly using his tongue to touch the vagina of a girl under the age of 14. At his guilty plea hearing, Johnson said he would plead guilty to the charge, but he denied touching her with his tongue. He claimed he only used his hand, which would have been a Class C felony.

The trial court accepted his guilty plea, found him to be a habitual offender, and sentenced him to 30 years for child molesting and a 30-year enhancement for his habitual-offender status.

The Court of Appeals reversed, pointing out that caselaw has insisted that a factual basis must exist for a guilty plea and a judge may not accept a guilty plea while a defendant claims actual innocence. During the hearing, Johnson consistently maintained his innocence to Class A felony child molesting. Although he did admit to Class C felony child molesting for touching the child’s vagina with his hand, the trial court accepted the guilty plea and entered a judgment of conviction for a Class A felony.

The trial court may accept Johnson’s guilty plea to the Class C felony or set the matter for trial on the Class A felony, the appellate court held.

 

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