A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

By Burt Rose

Click to download OpinionKatonka

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania en banc has issued an Opinion in the matter of COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. Paul Frank KATONKA, Appellant, 2011 WL 4962952, 2011 PA Super 223, No. 1957 WDA 2009 (Oct. 19, 2011). This case was before the Court of Common Pleas, Westmoreland County, Criminal Division at No. CP–65–CR–0001110–2008. The Judges were STEVENS, FORD ELLIOTT, MUSMANNO, BENDER, GANTMAN, DONOHUE, ALLEN, LAZARUS and OLSON. The Opinion was written by Judge Musmanno for the full court.

The Appellant entered a guilty plea to various charges arising from the sexual abuse of his stepdaughter. Following his entry of the guilty plea, but prior to sentencing, Katonka filed a Motion to withdraw the plea. At the subsequent hearing on the Motion, Katonka asserted his innocence. The trial court, Judge Debra Pezze, rejected Katonka’s Motion to withdraw his guilty plea and proceeded to sentencing. The trial court found that Katonka’s assertion of innocence was incredible as Katonka had stated at the time of his plea that he understood all of the charges and he had supplied a detailed confession to the crimes.

The lower court also erred by pointing to Katonka’s statements during his plea colloquy as a basis to conclude his assertion of innocence was incredible and not a fair and just reason for pre-sentence plea withdrawal. Since it is necessary for a criminal defendant to acknowledge his guilt during a guilty plea colloquy prior to the court’s acceptance of a plea, such an incongruity will necessarily be present in all cases where an assertion of innocence is the basis for withdrawing a guilty plea. Thus, participation in a plea colloquy does not prevent a defendant from later seeking to withdraw a plea based upon an assertion of innocence.

As to the confession, the Superior Court stated that Katonka’s confessions were not decisive as to his guilt or innocence and did not bear upon his assertion of innocence in a presentence motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Even if a confession has properly been admitted into evidence at trial, a finder of fact is still not compelled to believe the matters contained in the confession and to automatically return a verdict of guilty.

The Court proceeded to reaffirm the rule of law that where a defendant has made a clear assertion of innocence prior to sentencing, it can qualify as a fair and just reason to permit the presentence withdrawal of his guilty plea.

The case was remanded for the lower court to determine if the Commonwealth would be prejudiced by the withdrawal of this guilty plea.

Katonka was represented by attorney James Philip Silvis of Greensburg, PA.

The Free Student Research Center is now OPEN. It will be open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 9AM to 3PM. The Free Student Research Center is available for use by attorneys who are current members of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section and who are court-appointed to the case for which they seek research (either state or CJA!).

The Free Student Research Center is located in the Jack Myers Memorial Lounge on the Third Floor of the CJC. You may make a research request in person or via the Criminal Justice Section website at http://www.philadelphiabar.org/page/CJResearch

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