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In 2008, Robert Worden pleaded guilty to third-degree rape in Monroe County Court. His girlfriend had accused him of forcing himself on her while she was passed out from taking medications. She stated that she woke up twice and demanded that he stop but he kept going. Worden claimed the sex was consensual, but acknowledged that his girlfriend had taken too much medication to voice consent. As part of his plea deal, he received a sentence of 10 years probation.
Less than three weeks after the plea, though, the woman recanted her accusation, filing a statement saying that she did not remember having sex with Worden on that night and if they did, it would have been consensual. She claimed that her friends and family “were pushing me to press charges” because they didn’t like her boyfriend.
The case reached the state’s highest court in October. And in late November, the Court of Appeals vacated Worden’s ruling. Not because of the accuser changed her story, but because his conviction was invalid in the first place: Worden’s guilty plea did not actually include an admission to any crime.
“The record of the defendant’s plea allocation reveals that the prosecution, the defense counsel, and the trial court all misunderstood the definition of ‘lack of consent’ under” the penal code, the court wrote in a unanimous decision.
Under the state statute addressing “date rape or acquaintance rape situations,” the court noted, “lack of consent” means that “the victim clearly expressed that he or she did not consent to engage in [the sexual act], and a reasonable person in the actor’s situation would have understood the person’s words and acts.”
Worden, though, rejected his girlfriend’s original statement that she told him to stop. Prosecutors believed that they only needed him to admit that the victim was not fully coherent.
A prosecutors asked if the woman “didn’t give you consent because she took too much medication and she has a mental illness, correct?” Worden said yes.
“By answering in the affirmative,” the high court ruled, Worden “unequivocally negated an element of the crime to which he was pleading guilty.”
Which means he technically did not realize what he was admitting guilt for. And neither did the lawyers around him.
“If the prosecutor, defense counsel and the court all suffered from the same misunderstanding of the statutorily defined relationship between incapacity and lack of consent, it would be unreasonable to conclude that defendant understood it,” the court stated.
At that point, the ruling explained, the trial court is supposed to “inquire further” to make sure that the plea is “knowing and voluntary.” But that didn’t happen because of “a general misconception regarding the consent element.”
The case is now back in the hands of the Monroe County Court.