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Georgia high court overrules decades of its own precedent

Rosie Manins, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

The Georgia Supreme Court has overruled two decades of its own precedent by deciding that a criminal defendant’s guilty plea can stand in cases where a judge failed to advise the defendant of all the rights they waived when pleading guilty.

In a unanimous opinion issued Tuesday, the court said it was wrong to have invalidated guilty pleas in cases where defendants were not expressly told about each of the rights they waived.

The court declined Tuesday to set aside the guilty plea and life sentence of Donald Green in the shooting death of Andre Winder, after a Fulton County judge failed to tell Green that he was waiving his right to be protected from self-incrimination.

“The record shows that Green entered that plea of his own free choice, and that when he entered it, he was aware of the relevant circumstances and the likely consequences of pleading guilty, including the charges to which he was pleading, the various rights that he would waive by doing so, and the range of punishments to which he would be exposed,” the court said.

In correcting its past errors, the court looked to a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1969, which specified three rights a defendant waives when pleading guilty – the right to a jury trial, the right to confront adverse witnesses, and the right to be protected from self-incrimination.

In that case, titled Boykin v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a guilty plea is only valid if it’s made voluntarily and intelligently.


The Georgia Supreme Court said Tuesday that it went astray in the 1990s by deciding that the Boykin decision meant a defendant had to be told about those three rights they were waiving when pleading guilty, in order for the plea to stand.

Justice Andrew A. Pinson, who authored the court’s 66-page opinion, said Georgia justices subsequently decided several other cases incorrectly using that logic.

“The problem is that neither Boykin itself nor any (U.S.) Supreme Court decision that followed it even hints at that formalistic rule, and virtually every court across the country to have considered it — federal and state alike — has rejected that reading of Supreme Court precedent,” Pinson wrote. “Today, we correct course.”

The proper standard for reviewing the validity of a guilty plea was set out by the Georgia Supreme Court in a 1982 decision, which seemed to have been forgotten, Pinson noted.


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