Reversal of guilty plea is rejected Judge finds no coercion in plea in murder plot.

April 29, 1991|By Kelly Gilbert | Kelly Gilbert,Evening Sun Staff

A federal judge has refused to let former Bethesda accountant Joel D. Davis withdraw his guilty plea to a charge of conspiring to murder an IRS agent on a claim that the plea was involuntary.

Chief Judge Walter E. Black Jr. ruled Friday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that Davis' plea in the murder conspiracy case last summer "was in no way coerced or involuntary," the legal standards for withdrawing a plea.

In a complicated legal argument, defense attorney Nathan Lewin claimed that Davis pleaded guilty to the murder conspiracy because he was not allowed to appeal alleged judicial errors in an earlier racketeering-mail fraud case until after he was sentenced in both cases.

Had Davis won his appeal on Black's evidentiary rulings from the first trial, Lewin said, "he never would have pleaded guilty in the second [murder] case" because those issues might have given him a chance of winning an acquittal.

Lewin also argued that Black and federal prosecutors coerced Davis into waiving his right to appeal when he pleaded guilty to the murder-conspiracy charge, which violated his constitutional rights.

Prosecutor Peter M. Semel countered that Davis admitted his guilt in the murder-conspiracy case in court, admitted it to his probation officer as well and did not raise the issue of an involuntary plea at all during the four months between his plea and his sentencing.

Semel also argued that waivers of appeal rights in plea bargains are common and well-founded in law.

"If Davis says now that his plea was involuntary, he's committing perjury, because he admitted his guilt under oath," Semel said. "This is like giving CPR to a dead man."

Black, in his oral decision Friday, noted that he specifically asked Davis if the guilty plea was voluntary at the time, that the defendant said it was voluntary and that Davis did not withdraw his plea when the judge gave him the opportunity to do so in court.

Black also rebuffed Lewin's argument that Davis pleaded guilty to the murder conspiracy charge in part because he could not afford an attorney to represent him in a second trial.

"This court simply cannot believe the defendant would have entered a plea of guilty to a murder charge for lack of money," Black said. "The court could have appointed a federal public defender to represent him."

Black called the defense motions "bizarre" in the wake of the circumstances involving both of Davis' criminal cases.

The racketeering-mail fraud case stemmed from a 1980 arson fire in Torahtowne, a New York resort for orthodox Jews. Davis was said to have arranged the blaze so he could collect on an insurance policy. Davis hired the arsonist and told him to paint anti-Semitic slogans on the buildings to steer suspicion away from him, according to trial testimony.

Prosecutors also said during the trial that Davis was connected to a 1977 arson fire at Yeshiva High School in Montgomery County.

In the second case, Davis, himself a former IRS employee, hired a hit man to kill IRS Agent W. Stewart Connard in the early 1980s after Connard confronted the defendant during an audit with evidence of tax fraud.

Black sentenced Davis last November in both cases, giving him a 15-year prison term in the murder conspiracy case and a three-year consecutive term for racketeering and mail fraud.

Shortly afterward, Davis fired his Baltimore defense lawyers, hired Lewin in Washington, and filed motions to delay the start of his prison sentence, to remain free on bail pending appeals and to withdraw his guilty plea.

The motions were filed three weeks before Davis was to report to federal prison in Lorretto, Pa.

Davis also has appealed his convictions to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently denied his request for release on bail pending its decisions.

Lewin said Friday that he would add Black's latest decision to the pending appeals.

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