Man seeks to withdraw guilty pleas

HOLLIDAYSBURG – An Altoona man who is serving 15 to 30 years in a state prison on drug-related charges now says he wants to withdraw his guilty pleas because he was intimidated by the prospect of receiving mandatory sentences that would have resulted in even more time behind bars.

Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan in mid-May wrote a majority opinion among Blair County judges declaring mandatory sentences unconstitutional because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued last summer in a case called Alleyne v. The United States.

Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks objected to the request by Sean J. Graham, 39, telling Sullivan that, if granted, it could open the door to the hundreds of such requests in which defendants claim they were pleading only because they faced stiff mandatory sentences.

The unusual petition was presented to the judge by Altoona attorney Steven P. Passarello, who said prosecutors insisted that if Graham went to trial and was convicted of possession with intent to deliver cocaine and a related gun offense, he would be sentenced under the mandatories to 20 to 40 years.

Passarello admitted that without the mandatories over his head, Graham still faced a hefty prison sentence because of his high prior record score, but the sentence would be at the discretion of a judge and could have been as low as five to seven years behind bars.

The case, however, has a quirky twist to it that also was discussed Friday.

Graham was originally offered a plea deal of a 10-year minimum prison sentence, five years less than the deal he accepted last fall.

The defendant said he would accept another five years on his minimum – to 15 years – if the prosecution would reduce charges against his girlfriend, Melissa R. Shaw, 46, from felonies to misdemeanors. That would enable Shaw to continue her ownership of Shaw’s Bar at 331 N. Fifth Ave.

During sentencing, Graham insisted he would accept the extra five years so Shaw wouldn’t lose her bar and he did so even though Passarello advised him against taking such a deal.

Graham’s decision to go ahead with the longer prison sentence even prompted Sullivan last October to comment “undoubtedly, chivalry is not dead.”

The defendant affirmed Friday he agreed to the deal to save Shaw’s Bar, but he also used that situation as yet another reason that he should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.

Sullivan rejected Graham’s withdrawal request based on his desire to aid his paramour, pointing out he had been full aware of what that agreement meant – an extra five years on his minimum.

The judge asked Graham if Shaw still has the bar. He replied she did.

While Sullivan rejected Graham’s request to withdraw his guilty pleas based on his desire to aid his girlfriend, he decided to take the argument surrounding the Alleyne case off the bench.

He ordered a transcript of the hearing be prepared, and ordered that Passarello and Weeks file legal briefs in 20 days.

Alleyne was a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was up to a jury and not a judge to decide if a defendant had violated a mandatory sentencing provision in the law – like having a large amount of illegal drugs in his possession or the illegal possession of a firearm.

Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio said all that needed to be done was to amend indictments to place the mandatory question before the jury while Blair County attorney Thomas M. Dickey said the Alleyne decision meant Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentencing laws were unconstitutional.

The county’s judges in a 4-2 vote, with Sullivan preparing the majority opinion, came down on Dickey’s side, thus making mandatory sentences in Blair County unconstitutional, at least for the moment.

Weeks said an appeal of Sullivan’s opinion to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is under consideration.

Graham participated in Friday’s hearing by videoconference from the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill. He maintained his innocence to the charges to which he pled last year, stating, “I had nothing to do with all this stuff.”

The “stuff” he was referring to was the discovery of 275 grams of cocaine, a rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, a scale, a check weight, plastic sandwich bags, cellphones and $21,053 by police during a raid on the home he shared with Shaw.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.