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Posted: February 28, 2010 12:00 a.m.

Crowder wants to withdraw guilty plea

Judge to rule this week

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Crowder

Darrell Antonio Crowder pleaded guilty to the murder of his estranged wife Catcilia in December 2009 but has since made a motion to withdraw that plea, saying now that he is not guilty of the charges and that he was pressured into entering a plea by his attorney.

Crowder was charged with kicking his way into 43-year-old Catcilia's home, chasing her through the house and eventually shooting her several times following a series of angry text messages between the two on Jan. 16, 2008. The couple's 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old friend were both in the home at the time of the murder. Crowder then reportedly returned to work.

According to Crowder, he believed that when he came to court on Dec. 7, 2009, it was to pick a jury for his trial but that when he spoke with his attorney, Garland Benny Cook Jr., he was told that he had not come up with a defense for Crowder and that if he did not take the plea offered by the District Attorney's Office he would "die in jail."

"I felt like I was just screwed," said Crowder. "I made the decision to plead guilty two minutes before coming out [into the courtroom] because he [his attorney] said that I could probably get out in 15 years or so. Otherwise I would have gone to trial."

Assistant District Attorney Melanie Bell asked Crowder if he went through the guilty plea sheet with his attorney and Crowder said that he had. The sheet has defendants initial to affirm that they had not been promised anything in order to plead guilty and that they were satisfied with the job their attorney had done on the case. Crowder admitted to saying that he was satisfied with his attorney's work.

"So were you lying then or are you lying now," asked Bell.

Crowder said he was telling the truth both times -- that at the time of his plea he had thought his attorney had been performing to his satisfaction, but since that time he has changed his opinion. According to Crowder he asked his attorney to file several motions in his case, including one requesting a speedy trial and a motion for discovery [to see the evidence] from the prosecution. He said that his attorney told him he wanted an additional $150 in order to file a motion for discovery and that he told Crowder that he was going to tell the judge he was "only here because he was being paid."

Crowder reiterated that his attorney had to come up with a defense for him, but when asked admitted that he had not supplied one and that he had not been able to explain why cell phone records showed that he was in the area of Catcilia's home or why bullet casings were found in his mother's home that matched the type found with the victim.

"He never asked me," said Crowder.

Crowder's current attorney, public defender Jennifer Arndt, told Superior Court Judge Eugene Benton that at the time he signed the guilty plea Crowder believed he was doing what was best but later found out that his attorney had not performed the way he wished and immediately filed a motion to withdraw.

"Did I ask you if anyone promised or threatened you?" Benton asked Crowder. "I asked you if you were guilty and now today you want to withdraw that plea of guilty?"

"Yes sir," said Crowder.

Crowder's former attorney was called to testify, and Cook told the judge that he had met with his former client roughly four times at the Newton County Detention Center and those meetings lasted between 30 minutes and an hour, although Crowder had told the judge Cook never stayed longer than 15 minutes.

"Mr. Crowder didn't really have a lot to say," said Cook.

According to Cook he had filed a motion for discovery and received all of the evidence from the District Attorney's Office and that he had thoroughly reviewed all of the evidence available, with the exception of the photos taken at the scene of the crime, which he waited to review until the last minute.

"Mr. Crowder left a path of evidence a mile long and 30 miles wide behind him," said Cook. "And the only thing he could ever tell me is that he didn't do it."

Cook said that Crowder never filed a motion for a speedy trial, but that if he had there would have been no advantage to Crowder to do so. He denied saying that his only motive in the case was money and said that he was prepared to pick a jury on Dec. 7 and move forward with the trial, but admitted he was not looking forward to it.

"No lawyer likes to try a case he has no possibility of winning," said Cook, adding, "He [Crowder] simply left way too much evidence behind... I don't think a jury would have been very happy with him."

Cook said that he went over what he believed would be Crowder's sentence if a jury found him guilty of all the charges against him and how much time each individual charge carried if convicted.

"In my opinion there's a reason they call it a plea bargain," said Cook. "Because if you plea you get less than what you deserve and if you don't, you get what you deserve... I was trying to minimize his actual punishment and I believe I saved him 20 years. He pled to life plus five years and if convicted I told him I believed he would get life plus 25 years. My feeling was that a Newton County jury was not going to be too sympathetic to Mr. Crowder."

Bell argued that in a withdrawal of guilty plea the defendant bears the burden of proof and that Crowder couldn't even pinpoint what exactly he wanted Cook to do that he did not do. The issues that Crowder raised of the cell phone records are not suppressible in court and the bullet casings were found after a consent to search was given at Crowder's mother's residence by both his mother and himself, and that they were found in plain view.

"Just because he is looking back now and thinking 'I don't want to spend the rest of my life in prison,' is kind of a ‘too bad' situation," said Bell.

Arndt argued that Crowder was prepared to go to trial until he had a meeting with Cook that day and that Cook told him a new law that went into effect in 2009 requiring a defendant convicted sentenced to life to serve 30 years before being eligible for parole would not effect him because the crime took place in 2008.

"Without that a reasonable likelihood would be that he would have gone to trial. We feel like that is ineffective counsel on Mr. Cook's part," she said.

Benton declined to rule on whether he would allow Crowder to withdraw his plea of guilty at the time and said that he would rule on March 2 in the issue.


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