The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that a Somerset County judge abused his discretion in denying a convicted child rapist's motion to withdraw his Alford plea prior to sentencing.
The court vacated Rodney Lee Thomas' sentence and remanded the case back to the Somerset County Court of Common Pleas for trial.
Thomas, 40, was deemed a sexually violent predator and sentenced to 20 to 40 years in state prison Jan. 4 on charges of rape and aggravated indecent assault. He is accused of raping a 9-month-old infant between Feb. 7 and March 16, 2010, at a Salisbury residence.
On May 5, 2011, Thomas entered an Alford plea, meaning that he maintained his innocence but acknowledged that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to convict him of the charges.
On Aug. 22, 2011, at the time scheduled for a hearing to determine if Thomas was a sexually violent predator followed by his sentencing, Thomas asked to withdraw his plea. He said he wanted to withdraw his plea because he is innocent. A hearing was held Nov. 7, 2011. On Dec. 7, 2011, President Judge John M. Cascio denied Thomas' request.
Withdrawing a guilty plea before sentencing takes a fair and just reason, absent prejudice to the commonwealth, Thomas' attorney, Steve Miller of Somerset, said Thursday.
Because the plea was an Alford plea in which Thomas did not admit guilt, it would follow logically that a fair and just reason would be an assertion of innocence, Miller said.
Furthermore, the prosecution had to show that its case would be substantially prejudiced if Thomas were allowed to withdraw his plea.
The district attorney's office submitted a letter written by its star witness in which she suggested that she would lie on the stand and say she couldn't remember what she had told police about Thomas.
President Judge John Cascio concluded that the prosecution would be left without the witness's testimony, which amounted to the substantial prejudice necessary to deny Thomas' motion to withdraw his plea.