Judge denies request to withdraw guilty plea

HOLLIDAYSBURG – An Altoona man who pleaded guilty in September to aggravated assault, then tried to withdraw that plea two weeks later, is engaged in a game of buyer’s remorse, a Blair County judge has concluded.

Stephon L. Callens, 24, serving two to five years in prison, contended during an October court hearing that he should have been allowed to withdraw his plea in September.

After a review of the court proceedings, Judge Elizabeth Doyle concluded that Callens had no legal basis for a withdrawal. Now the case is moving onto Superior Court for review.

“This was not an abuse of discretion because [Callens] was engaging in gamesmanship with the plea process. … His plea was counseled and entered knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently,” Doyle wrote in her recent ruling. “He received the benefit of the plea bargain, under which he received a mitigated range sentence.”

Callens was arrested after a Jan. 5 domestic incident on the 5900 block of Evergreen Court. He was accused of beating a woman whose face was bruised, swollen and bloody. She suffered a broken tooth and bruises.

Altoona police said Callens told them he and the woman had been arguing.

In a statement Callens gave to police, referenced in Doyle’s ruling, Callens said that he blacked out after the woman said she no longer loved him.

“I just lost it. I don’t even remember what I was doing. I just remember swinging my arms a lot, like, really and really fast, swinging my arms,” Callens told police.

Callens, with the help of a court-appointed attorney, tried to have that statement removed from his court case, but their efforts failed. When they appeared in court in September for jury selection, Callens said he wanted another lawyer and asked for proceedings to be delayed. Upon learning that Callens had no financial resources to hire another attorney, Callens was instructed to proceed to jury selection with his court-appointed attorney or that he could represent himself.

The ruling prompted Callens to become disruptive, loud and to utter obscenities, leading to his removal from court. Upon returning, Callens spoke to his court-appointed counsel, then agreed to enter a guilty plea in exchange for a mitigated range sentence.

Doyle’s ruling notes that when Callens entered his plea, Callens said he understood his actions and that he was under no threat or coercion to enter the plea. Two weeks later, Callens filed a request to withdraw his plea, and during an October court hearing on his request, Callens told Doyle he did not plead guilty of his own free will because he believes he could win at trial.

“This is gamesmanship in the nature of buyer’s remorse, not a manifest injustice,” Doyle concluded.