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City man can’t withdraw pleas

Christian changed mind just before sentencing

An Altoona man, who in the middle of his trial last year decided to plead guilty to drug charges, cannot withdraw his guilty pleas, according to a ruling this week by the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

Keith Christian, 46, was in the second day of his trial in January 2019 when he informed his Altoona attorney, Douglas Keating, that he wanted to enter open guilty pleas to all the charges against him.

They included not only four drug buys, but also a gun possession charge.

Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan accepted the pleas, but just prior to Christian’s sentencing, Christian obtained a new attorney, Richard Corcoran of Ebensburg, who related to the judge that his client wanted to withdraw his pleas.

Christian claimed that when entering the pleas, he did not know that he was surrendering his right to contest the charges against him by pursuing his pretrial motions on appeal.

Sullivan rejected Christian’s attempt to withdraw his pleas, stating in an opinion issued in January, “Quite frankly, it would make a mockery of our justice system if a defendant were permitted to enter an open plea at or near completion of the Commonwealth’s case-in-chief, especially where the evidence has been overwhelmingly incriminating, and then permit such defendant to withdraw his guilty plea … prior to sentencing.”

A panel of Superior Court judges this week supported Sullivan’s opinion and upheld Christian’s subsequent sentence of 10.5 to 21 years in prison.

The Superior Court opinion, written by Judge Judith F. Olson, stated that a trial judge may permit the withdrawal of a guilty plea or a no-contest plea prior to sentencing.

The standard for allowing withdrawal is that it enhances “fairness” and “justice,” the opinion stated.

And, the panel noted, a defendant’s withdrawal request “should be liberally allowed.”

But, the Superior Court, which also included Judges Megan King and Dan Pellegrini, explained that another factor to be considered is whether the prosecution would be prejudiced.

The panel ruled that in Christian’s case, the prosecution, which had almost completed its case, “would be substantially prejudiced by an order granting (Christian’s) motion to withdraw.”

The appeals court reviewed Christian’s guilty plea hearing and concluded that he “affirmatively expressed” to Judge Sullivan that he understood that by entering guilty pleas he was giving up his right to appeal pretrial rulings made in his case.

The panel stated that Christian “is not entitled to relief based on his contention that he misunderstood the consequences of his guilty pleas.”

Christian was arrested by members of the West Drug Task Force on Aug. 8, 2017, during a buy-bust operation in which a suspect is immediately taken into custody after the exchange of money for drugs.

The buy, which occurred in an alley on the 2600 block of Beale Avenue, included seven capsules of heroin for $105.

During an ensuing search of the suspect’s apartment, police found $1,647 in cash and a .22-caliber handgun that had been stolen from a Tyrone residence. Police also found an additional two bundles of heroin and 28 doses of heroin in plastic capsules.

It was also determined that Christian was on county probation from Philadelphia and state parole.

He presently resides in the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill in Dauphin County.

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