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Prisoner appeals after accepting plea agreement

A New Port Richey man appealed his plea agreement from prison without a lawyer.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 24, 2001


James Curtis stood before a judge in March and pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter for the death of a foster child he hoped to adopt.

Circuit Judge William Webb asked the 26-year-old New Port Richey man a series of questions: You understand you are waiving your right to challenge the prosecution's witnesses and evidence? Is this really what you want to do? Are you satisfied with your lawyer and his work on your behalf?

Yes, Curtis responded. Satisfied, Webb accepted the plea, which called for Curtis to serve nearly 14 years in prison.

However, Curtis last month petitioned the 2nd District Court of Appeal for permission to belatedly challenge the plea deal he agreed to on March 16. Curtis needs the court's approval to attack the plea because he did not file his appeal within the 30-day window provided for by state law.

Until his plea, Curtis was under indictment for first-degree murder -- and faced a possible death sentence -- for wrapping 3-year-old Alex Boucher so tightly in a blanket in September that the boy died of asphyxiation. Prosecutors agreed to reduce the charge to manslaughter after Curtis' lawyer, Bob Attridge, accused the case's lead detective of committing perjury in a court hearing.

In a handwritten petition prepared at Lake Correctional Institution in Central Florida, Curtis blamed his failure to file a timely appeal on Attridge. He said he told the lawyer to file an appeal two weeks after the change-of-plea hearing, but "through error or inadvertence," Attridge didn't follow the instructions, Curtis wrote.

Attridge, in an interview Monday, said Curtis "never asked for an appeal during the time frame he could have legally appealed."

Because he pleaded guilty, Curtis' appellate options are limited. Even if he is allowed to pursue an appeal, he can hope only to persuade a court to permit him to withdraw his plea, which would put the case back on a trial docket.

To win the right to withdraw his plea, Curtis must either show that he was impaired at the time by medication or illegal drugs or that he was given bad advice or pressured by his lawyer. Nothing along those lines is alleged in Curtis' petition, though the time to do so would be later, if he is permitted to go forward with an appeal.

Curtis does say in his petition that he asked Attridge to file an appeal after learning that New Port Richey Detective Jackie Pehote made misstatements under oath in a December pretrial hearing.

Pehote testified at the December hearing that she never told Curtis' wife, Jennifer, that she would be arrested on a murder charge. In fact, a videotape of Pehote's interview with the couple shows that the detective threatened Jennifer Curtis with arrest several times. Pehote also testified that she never told the couple they could not leave the state while the investigation was ongoing. Months earlier, though, Pehote told a grand jury that she had instructed the couple that they were not free to leave town.

By pleading guilty, however, Curtis has already given up his right to attack the detective's actions.

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