NJ Court Vacates Teen’s Manslaughter Plea

     TRENTON (CN) – A New Jersey court should not have accepted the manslaughter plea of a teenager who insists he shot and killed his childhood friend in self-defense, the divided state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
     Edwin Urbina was 16 on Nov. 24, 2007, when he fired six bullets into the neck and head of Edwin Torres, a 22-year-old he had known since childhood.
     After Urbina’s case was transferred out of family court in 2008, he avoided indictment for first-degree murder, a charge that would carry a potential life sentence, by pleading guilty to manslaughter.
     At the plea hearing, Urbina said he and Torres had gotten into an argument, wherein Torres “smacked” him, and that Torres and his cousin then pulled guns. Urbina pulled his own gun, an automatic, and pointed it at Torres. Urbina admitted to pulling the trigger once, in error, which caused the automatic handgun to fire six times.
     Urbina claimed he hadn’t intended for Torres to die in the street that day. The gun “just went off,” Urbina told the plea judge, saying he “just wanted to have [Torres] back off.”
     One key piece of evidence for self-defense – the handgun Torres allegedly pulled – could not be found, however. Urbina even admitted as much under questioning.
     The court had asked Urbina in the hearing whether he knew that “by pleading guilty today, you’ve waived any potential utilization of self-defense.”
     Urbina then initialed a form where the phrase “waive self-defense” was written.
     Sentenced to the 17 1/2 half years in prison, Urbina filed a pro se appeal, arguing his guilty plea should not have been accepted because he had actually asserted self-defense.
     Urbina’s case divided a three-judge appellate panel, which previously affirmed, and the New Jersey Supreme Court, which vacated the plea 4-3 Tuesday.
     “The plea judge did not ensure that [the] defendant truly understood the law of self-defense, including the requirement of a reasonable and honest belief in the necessity of using force,” Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina wrote for the majority. “Absent such an inquiry on the record, it is unclear whether defendant’s plea was truly knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.”
     Urbina claims that he had tried to fire warning shots to get Torres to back off, and also that he feared for his life when Torres pulled a gun.
     Those two claims, along with the fact that no gun was found on Torres, made Urbina’s intentions unclear, the court found.
     The dissent by Justice Lee Solomon meanwhile highlights the eyewitness accounts that claimed Torres and his cousin had been unarmed.
     “I conclude that defendant’s fleeting suggestion that he acted in self-defense was a product of his natural reluctance to admit to criminally culpable conduct, not a legitimate assertion of self-defense,” Solomon wrote, joined by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justice Barry Albin.
     The ruling returns Urbina “to the position where he stood before he entered his guilty plea, and this matter is hereby remanded for further proceedings.”

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