Defendant cites misunderstanding of plea deal as cause for new trial

Friday, April 26, 2013 | 4:48 p.m. CDT; updated 6:19 p.m. CDT, Friday, April 26, 2013

COLUMBIA — Judge Christine Carpenter read a transcript from Robert Melton's 2012 criminal trial back to him.

"So you understand that even though these are all concurrent to each other, it's consecutive to the other (three year sentence)?"she had asked Melton in a Feb. 27, 2012, trial hearing, making sure he understood his plea.

"Yes ma'am," Melton had responded.

That plea put Melton in jail for three years. But another sentence he had received for probation violation adds another three years to his jail time. He says he thought they would be concurrent and is seeking to change his sentence.

Melton pleaded guilty in the 2012 trial to two charges of possession of a controlled substance and one charge of unlawful use of a weapon. With his criminal history, the charges could have carried an 18-year sentence without the plea, public prosecutor Cassandra Rogers said.

Melton said he didn't find out he was serving six years until almost seven months after he entered his plea deal to the court.

After hearing from both sides Friday, Judge Carpenter gave them each 15 days to submit written final arguments. Cinda Eichner, Melton's attorney, is expected to have hers within a week, giving the state time to review the argument and write a response. 

If Carpenter rules in favor of Melton, he will get a new trial.

Eichner asked Melton if he would have pleaded guilty if he knew he would serve six years.

"No ma'am. I would've held out," he said. "The way it's looking, I won't be out until 2015, 2016."

Melton's estimate of his release takes into account that he will have to serve 80 percent of each sentence.

In his time on the stand, Melton acknowledged he was guilty of the charges, but said he hoped to change his sentence to the one he thought he was agreeing to.

Rogers told Melton that wasn't possible.

"The court does not have jurisdiction to change your sentence at this time," she said. "It only has jurisdiction to allow you to withdraw your plea. Do you understand that?"

Melton's head turned to the floor, and he sat still, silent. Finally, he spoke. 

"I'm just trying to figure out what's wrong and what's right."

Melton said he developed an alcohol problem after his last stay in prison, which led him to steal two bottles of Crown Royal, the crime that sent him back to jail.

"This alcohol ruined my life," he said. "I lost everything. I lost my job. I lost my place. I lost my truck."

Rogers pressed Melton about his claim that he hadn't gotten enough time with his lawyer during the trial. She referenced his many court dates and what his lawyer, Manuel Tatayon, described as at least eight phone conversations and several meetings outside the Callaway County Courthouse, where the trial took place.

Tatayon said he made sure Melton understood his sentence. He described the way he always explains sentencing to his clients.

"I describe concurrent as running at the same time, and I describe consecutive as stacked," Tatayon said, motioning his hands one over the other just as he would to a client. 

He said he told Melton about how he would serve his sentence "definitely at least two times."

Rogers asked if a high caseload kept Tatayon from paying enough attention to his client in Melton's trial.

"Not in this case, no," Tatayon said.

Supervising editor is Richard Webner.

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