No new trial despite mistaken confession

New attorney says man 'a victim of bad lawyering'

Friday, December 24, 2004 Posted: 10:24 AM EST (1524 GMT)

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (AP) -- A New Jersey man who pleaded guilty to murder after his lawyer and prosecutors mistakenly told him that he risked being executed if he didn't confess isn't entitled to a new trial, a federal appeals court ruled.

A three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said George Johnson waited too long to challenge the error in federal court. The Philadelphia-based court overturned a federal judge's ruling that Johnson's guilty plea should be tossed out.

At issue in the case was a 1983 plea bargain in which Johnson admitted smothering a 76-year-old man during a robbery in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

During the negotiations that led to the plea, lawyers apparently confused by New Jersey's new death penalty law -- then only a year old -- told Johnson he could be sentenced to death if his case went to trial.

In truth, he was ineligible for the death penalty, but Johnson agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a promise from prosecutors not to seek capital punishment.

A state judge was also apparently confused by the law and briefly deliberated giving Johnson the death penalty before sentencing him to life in prison.

Johnson appealed his sentence, but didn't get immediate help from a lawyer in doing so, and ultimately missed a deadline to complain about the bad advice that led him to accept the plea bargain.

The 3rd Circuit said the procedural error didn't alter Johnson's guilt.

Johnson's attorney, Jean Barrett, of Montclair, New Jersey, said she would appeal the decision.

"This guy has basically been a victim of bad lawyering," Barrett said.