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Legal Blog: Did Teresa Giudice Violate Her Plea Agreement By Denying Her Guilt In Interviews? [Exclusive]

Stacy Slotnick, Esq. holds a J.D., cum laude, from Touro Law Center and a B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She performs a broad range of duties as an entertainment lawyer, including drafting and negotiating contracts; addressing and litigating trademark, copyright, and other IP issues; and directing the strategy and implementation of public relations, blogging, and social media campaigns.

Teresa Giudice_RHONJ

Real Housewives of New Jersey” star Teresa Giudice is an open book … perhaps too much so.  Teresa recently discussed her time behind bars, telling ABC News’ Amy Robach on February 9 that she “definitely” had no idea she and husband Joe Giudice were committing any crimes. Despite her guilty plea, the mother of four expounded, “There was no intent to commit a crime.  I didn’t know I was committing a crime…” You be the judge.

The reality TV star was released from the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., in December. She had served 11 and a half months of a 15-month sentence there after pleading guilty to multiple offenses that included conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bankruptcy fraud.  Joe Giudice is set to begin his 41-month prison sentence in March.

Teresa revealed in her first live television interview since being released from federal prison that she had no idea she was breaking the law. Inmate number 65703-050’s tell-all, Turning The Tables: From Housewife to Inmate and Back Again, hit shelves Tuesday.

Teresa says she signed whatever paperwork her husband or lawyers asked her to without question.  Moreover, the 43-year-old admits she did not have a thorough understanding of her financial situation at the time.  In the “Good Morning America” segment, the author also declared her financial problems are history, and that she has paid back the more than $400,000 owed in restitution.

When asked what kind of advice she would be giving her daughters from the experience, Teresa said she wants to let them know always read something before signing it.

The above-mentioned statements sound like Teresa is deflecting blame and reneging on her guilty plea with pronouncements about her lack of mens rea (guilty mind). The “Plea Agreement with Teresa Giudice,” signed almost two years ago, has Teresa acknowledging, “I want to plead guilty pursuant to this plea agreement.”  On page 10, we learn, “Teresa Giudice has clearly demonstrated a recognition and affirmative acceptance of personal responsibility for the offenses charged.” 

The U.S. Department of Justice accepted a guilty plea from Teresa Giudice. The plea deal was agreed and accepted by Teresa Giudice and her counsel, Henry E. Klingeman, Esq. Have Teresa’s denials of guilt on “Good Morning America” somehow invalidated her plea agreement?  Did she violate her plea agreement?

Criminal defense attorneys are often confronted with the following conundrum: Defendant insists that she is innocent, yet the evidence against her is overwhelming. Such defendant refuses to admit her guilt, often a requirement to concluding a plea bargain, yet fears going to trial due to the perceived unavoidable result of a finding of fault. If the defendant pleads guilty, the law requires that she do so honestly. Frequently, the defendant must state, under oath and in open court, what she did constituted a crime. The law does not permit the defendant to lie about her guilt just to get a plea deal.

Since more than 90 percent of criminal convictions result from plea bargaining, and a vast majority of the people in prison insist that they are innocent, it stands to reason that the criminal justice system will not necessarily invalidate a guilty plea simply because the defendant makes out-of-court statements about his/her innocence. What do you make of Teresa’s protestations to “Good Morning America?”  Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure requires courts to determine that the defendant understands the rights he/she is giving up and that the plea is voluntary.

Does a criminal defendant have to believe openly in his/her plea for it to stick in a court of law?  The answer is probably not. In the landmark case, North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970), the defendant pleaded guilty to second-degree murder to avoid a trial on a first-degree murder charge, which carried a potential capital sentence. When entering his plea, the defendant claimed he was innocent of the crime but too afraid of the death penalty to risk a trial. The judge accepted Alford’s plea, and the Supreme Court held that a guilty plea made out of alleged fear or coercion is still legal.

Supreme Court Justice Byron White, writing for the majority in Alford, explained that courts may accept whatever plea a defendant chooses to enter, as long as the defendant is competently represented by counsel; the plea is intelligently chosen; and “the record before the judge contains strong evidence of actual guilt.” In sum, criminal defendants have been able to maintain their claims of innocence while still taking advantage of a plea bargain offer, which would require them to plead guilty. 

Silence is golden. Criminal defendants maintain some First Amendment freedoms but the free speech doctrine necessarily concerns questions about whether a criminal justice system that never hears from its defendants – in the case of a plea bargain – is fair and legitimate. Plea deals provide for free speech as long as it is counseled and channeled through an attorney negotiating the plea deal.

Threats of prison, prosecution of family members and friends, and promises of leniency are all acceptable bargaining tools for prosecutors in their effort to induce the defendant to say what it wishes and to waive his/her constitutional rights, including the right to speak at trial.  This is all permitted, since the presence and advice of counsel in theory ensures that a defendant’s decision to plead guilty is rational and voluntary.

Stated another way, a defendant can agree to plead guilty out of fear for his/her life or his/her family as long as he/she has a lawyer, and his/her decision to do so will be deemed voluntary even if the defendant’s subjective feeling is that she has no choice.

In our democracy, individual speech has historically been seen as a remedy to government overreaching and judicial tyranny.  Nevertheless, the ways that defendants speak in court are heavily regulated and potentially punishable.  The defendant who openly criticizes the nature of a judicial proceeding has limited First Amendment safeguards.  As a result, criminal defendant speech does not necessarily trigger First Amendment protections. Meanwhile, some plea agreements contain “gag provisions” prohibiting the parties from discussing the settlement. The key for All About the Tea posters is to determine whether what Teresa said to Amy Robach – and elsewhere – should be protected speech. 

Defendants plead guilty. By definition, they give up their rights to go to trial and to testify. In exchange, they enter into a negotiation process with the government.  In this particular circumstance, here is what may have happened to precipitate Teresa’s recent declarations of innocence and her apparent lack of liability: Through speech she is expressing her present understanding of legal rules and doctrines; her view on the fairness or unfairness of the procedures by which she was adjudicated; and, ultimately, her rejection of the judicial process and its result.

Teresa tried to sum up her experience over the past few years of legal disputes to “Good Morning America” as follows: “I got sentenced. I got served time. I did what I had to do and now I’m moving past it.”  But what will it take for the public to move past her transgressions? Remember, the scheme she admitted to participating in to defraud financial institutions occurred for over a decade.  Grab your gavel, join the conversation, and tell us what you think about Teresa’s “Good Morning America” interview, her plea deal, and First Amendment rights of criminal defendants.

 

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