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Malice murder guilty plea upheld in Derrick Bell case

A lower court’s decision to deny Derrick Bell’s motions to withdraw his guilty plea and to void his sentence in a malice murder case has been upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

A lower court’s decision to deny Derrick Bell’s motions to withdraw his guilty plea and to void his sentence in a malice murder case has been upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

ALBANY — A denial by the Dougherty Superior Court of Derrick Bell’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea and void his sentence in connection to a murder case was upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court on Monday.

On Sept. 20, 2010, Bell entered a negotiated plea to counts of conspiracy to commit malice murder, malice murder and criminal damage to property in the second degree in connection to the shooting death of Dominic King, 24, at 1910 Meadow Drive on Jan. 15, 2010, police reports and court documents show. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and a concurrent sentence of five years imprisonment for criminal damage to property with the conspiracy count merged with the malice murder charge.

Nine days later, the Dougherty Superior Court received a letter from Bell requesting to “take back” his plea. The following November, Bell’s newly-appointed attorney filed a written motion to withdraw his plea and subsequently filed a motion to vacate a void sentence. The court denied both motions following two hearings, court documents show.

Bell contended the court should have allowed him to withdraw the plea to correct a manifest injustice, alleging there was not a sufficient factual basis for the plea, and that his assertions of fact in support of a justification defense were a claim of innocence — and the court failed to resolve the conflict between his waiver of a jury trial and his claim of innocence.

When a defendant challenges the validity of a guilty plea, the State has the burden of showing the plea was made intelligently and voluntarily. Court records indicate Bell stated he had discussed his rights with his attorney before signing the waiver of rights form, he understood the charges he was pleading to, had discussed with counsel the maximum and minimum sentences with his attorney, nobody had promised a benefit or threatened him into entering the plea and that he was entering into the plea voluntarily.

“The trial court found that Bell made a knowing and intelligent waiver of his rights and there was a sufficient factual basis for the plea,” the opinion released on Monday says. “We conclude that the record supports these factual findings. Thus, the case does not involve a manifest injustice necessitating the withdrawal of Bell’s guilty plea.”

Bell further contended he had an absolute right to withdraw his guilty plea because his sentence was void, an argument the Court’s opinion states is premised on his contention the trial court imposed a term of probation not allowed by law as part of his sentence for murder.

On that vein, the state Supreme Court said the trial court did not impose an invalid sentence since it is the sentence signed by the judge, not the oral declaration, that is the sentence of the court.

” … Although both the prosecutor and the trial court during the plea hearing erroneously told Bell that he would be subject to probation, the written sentence signed by the judge and defendant and filed with the clerk shows that the trial court imposed a sentence of life with parole on the murder count and a five-year concurrent term of imprisonment on the criminal damage to property count,” the opinion states. “The sentence does not include a term of probation. Because the judgment imposed a term of life imprisonment on the murder count, as provided by law, Bell’s sentence was not illegal or void and the trial court properly denied his motion to vacate void sentence.”

Records available from the Georgia Department of Corrections show Bell is currently being held in Ware State Prison. His incarceration began in August 2011.