Jose Carrasquillo is probably unaware of the influence he's had.
At the Nov. 30, 2011 hearing where he was sentenced to 30 to 66 years in prison for raping an 11-year-old Kensington girl and the attempted assault of a 16-year-old, Carrasquillo asked for a do-over: he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial because he was innocent.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Ramy I. Djerassi said no; Carrasquillo was not acting in good faith and was trying to manipulate the justice system. The judge didn't believe Carrasquillo's claim that he was the Antichrist and was being framed by federal agents trying to send him to China to assassinate the president.
Well, Carrasquillo, 30, got his wish. On Oct. 8, a divided state Superior Court said a defendant has the right to renege on a guilty plea up to sentencing if based on a "fair and just" belief in innocence. The court vacated Carrasquillo's guilty plea and sentence and said he should get his trial.
It's not known how many defendants have followed Carrasquillo's lead, but city judges took note and it's added uncertainty to an already volatile process.
Take, for example, the case of Rashad Cheeseboro. Three weeks after Carrasquillo's appellate victory, Cheeseboro, 25, announced that he wanted to withdraw his June 6, 2012 guilty plea to third-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy in the Jan. 3, 2012 slaying of pizza delivery man Ronald Anderson Jr. in Southwest Philadelphia.
Referencing the Carrasquillo decision, Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner let Cheeseboro's lawyer William L. Bowe -- who arrived at the guilty plea agreement with the District Attorney's office -- out of the case and appointed former city prosecutor Leon Goodman to represent Cheeseboro in future proceedings.
Cheeseboro apparently had a hard time understanding why he had to plead guilty to murder when he did not shoot Anderson. He's not alone. Defendants, jurors and lay people often puzzle over the conspiracy statute: if you commit a crime with others, you share the legal responsibility for what happens – even if you didn't pull the trigger.
Cheeseboro and three other Southwest Philadelphia residents were arrested in the Anderson killing. Anderson, 29, married and the father of a young daughter, drove to the 2500 block of Massey Street at about 10 p.m. on Jan. 3, 2012 to make a last-minute delivery from Hot Spot Pizza. When he arrived, Anderson was confronted by two men and two women in what turned into a robbery and murder. The killers fled without getting anything.
But Cheeseboro's decision to withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial had its own pitfalls. The gunman, Michael Covington, 22, pleaded guilty on Sept. 30 on the first day of his trial and was sentenced to 35 to 70 years in prison. The two women – Xylaca Devlin, 20, and Keyona Jones, 20 – pleaded guilty back in June 2012 along with Cheeseboro. If Cheeseboro went to trial now, both women would likely testify against him and he might well be found guilty of felony murder. Felony murder, or second-degree murder -- a killing while committing another crime – carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
Cheeseboro's new lawyer began trying to convince him that the original guilty plea was better than taking his chance at trial and a life sentence. The effort continued for about an hour Wednesday before Cheeseboro was again brought before Judge Lerner. Under questioning by the veteran judge, Cheeseboro affirmed that he wanted to plead guilty, that his plea was voluntary, that he understood what he was doing and the rights he was waiving.
Assuming his decision stands, Cheeseboro, Devlin and Jones will be sentenced by Lerner on Jan. 3.