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Court targets plea in sex offender case

An appeals court says a man can withdraw his no-contest plea in a sex abuse case because of bad advice from a lawyer.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001


Donald Watrous thought his no-contest plea to lewd and lascivious acts with a minor meant he would be released from custody immediately.

But 25 days after he entered the plea in a New Port Richey courtroom, Watrous learned the state had filed papers seeking to have him committed indefinitely as a violent sex offender under the Jimmy Ryce Act.

On Wednesday, an appeals court said Watrous, 66, of Tarpon Springs should be allowed to withdraw the plea he entered in 1999 because his attorney neglected to warn him about the Jimmy Ryce Act, a Florida law that allows the state to confine violent sex offenders for years, even life, if they are likely to commit similar crimes in the future.

The attorney, Jeff Lucas, erred when he told Watrous that the plea agreement guaranteed his immediate freedom, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland ruled.

"That's my mistake, and my God, I should pay for it," Lucas told the St. Petersburg Times on Thursday. Had Watrous known he could be exposed to the Jimmy Ryce Act, "he never would have entered that plea," Lucas said.

The ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal on Wednesday adds to the growing body of legal opinions wrestling with the application of the Jimmy Ryce Act, which has withstood numerous constitutional challenges since its enactment in 1998. Critics of the act argue that it illegally punishes defendants twice for the same crime.

In its opinion, the court also addressed the broader issue of whether defendants charged with sex crimes in Florida have a right to be advised that, should they agree to enter a plea that would result in a conviction, they would face certain exposure to the Jimmy Ryce Act.

"We would urge the Supreme Court . . . to require trial courts to advise defendants of the consequences of the Act," the court wrote.

Under the act, inmates with any violent sex offense in their background are screened before being released from prison. Those deemed a serious threat to reoffend are recommended for involuntary commitment to a treatment facility in Martin County. The case then moves to civil court, where a jury determines whether the defendant is likely to commit another sex offense.

In Pasco County, judges recently started advising defendants accused of sex crimes that a plea would expose them to the Jimmy Ryce Act. Additionally, standard plea forms in Pasco now include a disclaimer warning defendants about the act.

Wednesday's decision by the appeals court directs Circuit Judge Craig Villanti to hold a hearing at which Lucas will be called to testify about what he told Watrous before the plea. If Lucas testifies, as he told the Times he would, that he had advised Watrous he would be set free immediately, then the case would be placed on a trial calendar.

Watrous was accused of molesting three girls who were members of a family that had befriended him. He was convicted at trial in that case in 1994 and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but an appeals court later overturned the verdict. As the case made its way to trial again in 1999, prosecutors agreed to a deal that called for Watrous to plead no contest in exchange for a 10-year prison sentence. The deal meant Watrous would be released from prison immediately because, with gain time, he would already have served his sentence.

Lucas said he advised his client to enter the plea based on a promise from prosecutors that Watrous "would be walking out of jail."

"My mistake was trusting (prosecutors)," Lucas said. "Their intent, in my opinion, was to screw Mr. Watrous."

Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis, who supervised prosecutors in west Pasco, said his office struck no such deal with Lucas. "(Lucas) is making that claim now because he didn't tell his client all of the ramifications of a plea. That's not our job."

Watrous also was convicted in 1980 of attempted sexual battery on a juvenile and served 8 1/2 years in prison, according to state records.

Watrous remains in state custody awaiting civil trial.

- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavis@sptimes.com.

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