Following The Client Down The Plea Withdrawal Rabbit Hole

Granted, there was always a good chance that defending a person charged in the January 6th insurrection was going to have its pitfalls. It’s the nature of the beast, the working of a mind of someone whose grasp of reality was so distorted that he was inclined to be there, to do whatever he did, to buy into the insanity of the conspiracies and lies, in the first place.

But crazy clients are nothing new in criminal law, and dealing with a defendant’s irrationality is part of the gig.

The first Jan. 6 rioter sentenced for a felony charge began mounting a desperate bid Wednesday to unravel his plea agreement, claiming through a newly retained attorney that his signature on the deal was forged.

But the federal judge in the case, Randy Moss, expressed skepticism about the claim and noted it could even put Paul Hodgkins at legal risk, since he said under oath that he had reviewed and accepted the plea deal.

When the judge says he’s “skeptical” and, off the top of his head, suggests that a nifty move could result in “legal risk,” it’s the polite way of telling someone that what they’re doing is going to backfire badly and inure to their great detriment. But then, that’s why defendants are represented by lawyers.

His new attorney, Carolyn Stewart, made the forgery allegation during a hearing called by Moss to address Hodgkins’ claim that Leduc provided ineffective counsel. She said she retained handwriting expert Curt Baggett to review the document and confirmed that it was not Hodgkins’ signature on the agreement. Baggett, she said, would be willing to testify to it in court.

Is it possible that Hodgkins’ former lawyer provided ineffective assistance of counsel? Sure. It happens. Is it possible that somebody, perhaps the former lawyer, “Patrick Leduc, a JAG Reserve officer who later deployed to Qatar, where he is assisting with Afghan refugee rescue operations,” forged Hodgkins’ signature on the plea agreement? Anything is possible, I guess. As for somebody being willing to testify that the signature isn’t Hodgkins’, there’s somebody willing to testify to pretty much anything for the right price or motivation, so that’s not quite as convincing as one might supposed.

But will that win the day?

Stewart suggested that the allegedly forged signature was one of many irregularities tainting the case.

“It’s mind boggling,” the defense attorney said, mentioning that she is attuned to such patterns because of her work as an intelligence analyst in Afghanistan. “These kinds of things keep popping up … I’m floored.”

This could explain more about the intelligence failures in Afghanistan than the case against Hodgkins. In the normal course of defense, the lawyer will go through the plea agreement with his client, discuss and explain what it means, what it involves, what the risks are and what he needs to understand before agreeing to it. Leduc says that’s exactly what happened.

LeDuc said in an email to POLITICO that the claim of a forged signature was “insane” and that he painstakingly reviewed the deal with Hodgkins.

“I went over every single line of that plea agreement with Paul for about three hours to include the factual stipulations and he signed the thing in front of me and then came back and [re-signed] the other form as well,” he said. “Nothing happened in the case without Paul’s consent. I don’t understand any of this this. It is insane and I am just so over it all.”

Could Leduc being lying about having gone through the plea agreement line by line? Lying can happen, but that’s not all that happens since on top of the defendant signing the plea agreement, the judge then goes through an allocution, sworn testimony in which the judge makes inquiries to assure the defendant knows what he’s doing and is doing so of his own free will.

It’s unclear, though, what bearing the allegation has on Hodgkins’ guilt, since he entered the plea in an open court hearing and acknowledged his guilt for the alleged offenses, and Moss ran through many of the provisions of the deal with him.

The judge didn’t opine directly on the forgery allegation Wednesday, but he did note that the reason “a lot of time” was spent on the colloquy with Hodgkins is to “guard against” subsequent claims that the defendant didn’t understand the agreement or the consequences of pleading guilty.

This presents a hurdle that’s really hard for the defendant and his new lawyer, Stewart, to surmount. No matter what else they claim, and how extremely unlikely it might be that so many “irregularities” happened, Hodgkins still went through the usual allocution on the record in open court before Judge Moss. Will Stewart next argue that the judge dreamed the colloquy?

But the underlying question is to what end? Does Hodgkins want to go to trial and see how he does on sentence afterward? Is he playing for the foul, like Sidney and Flynn? Did the reality hit home after he got eight months and somebody inside told him he should go for a Mulligan for some cockamamie reason that eludes rational minds?

It’s his lawyer’s job to tell him of the peril this course presents, and Judge Moss’ admonition only scratches the surface. But is his second lawyer doing her job or pushing him toward the rabbit hole?

Stewart’s allegation appeared to rankle prosecutor Mona Sedky, who called the Florida-based lawyer a “relatively new” attorney and said some of the messages she’d gotten from the lawyer were unconventional.

“I’ve been tolerant of a lot of very strange and and unorthodox communications, for lack of a better word, and I’ve been not putting it in my pleadings and not raising it with the court out of respect to her,” the prosecutor said.

Stewart “joined the bar late last year,” after 25 years in the Army, reaching the rank of Colonel. What she lacks in legal experience should be made up in her life experience. And perhaps that’s why she’s party to her client taking the dive down this particular rabbit hole where the bad choices he’s made can still get much worse. And she may well find herself with him at the bottom of that hole.

15 thoughts on “Following The Client Down The Plea Withdrawal Rabbit Hole

  1. John Barleycorn

    I am particularly bummed out that you didn’t float a lawyer joke in this post.

    P.S. If you spent half as much time pontificating about guilds and mandatory apprenticeships, as you do clipping your toenails, clients across the nation, could once again, have nice things including sandals that actualy fit the hoves of the unicorns they are riding.

  2. ETB

    Another problem with this attempt: Mr. Baggett has been excluded numerous times as an expert witness. He has no actual credentials and a criminal history. Sorry for the long quote. I understand if you delete/edit, but we have dealt with Mr. Baggett before and have a growing file on the cases that have excluded him. From U.S. v. Mary Revels a/k/a “Crazy Mary” (No. 1:10-CR-110-1, E.D. Tenn. May 9, 2012) (can be found on Google Scholar):

    “On the surface, Mr. Baggett’s credentials are noteworthy, and they certainly impressed Defendant enough to retain him as an opinion witness. Yet, in this field, due diligence necessitates probing beneath the surface, and in Mr. Baggett’s case, even a small amount of probing would have unearthed a rather different picture.

    [V]iewing Mr. Baggett’s record as a whole, this Court can find no meaningful distinction between his qualifications in 2006 and today that would convince this Court to veer from the conclusions drawn in Dracz and Blake that Mr. Baggett is not qualified to testify. Even under a “minimum indicia-of-reliability standard,” this Court concludes that the issues raised with respect to Mr. Baggett’s qualifications call into doubt the reliability of any testimony that he would offer. Accordingly, Mr. Baggett will not be allowed to testify at Defendant’s sentencing as an expert.

    Here, as the factfinder at sentencing, this Court has grave concerns about Mr. Baggett’s credibility. At a
    minimum, these concerns would have greatly affected whether the Court would have given any weight
    to Mr. Baggett’s testimony had he been allowed to testify.

    The Court is also troubled by Mr. Baggett’s criminal history. Mr. Baggett has received felony convictions
    for theft and aggravated assault dating back to approximately 1989 and 1998, respectively. Mr. Baggett
    also received a deferred adjudication after pleading guilty to the misdemeanor offense of Tampering with a Government Record in 2000, which stemmed from his failure to truthfully disclose his criminal history on a government form. The Court recognizes that even the most recent of these events occurred nearly twelve years ago and that Mr. Baggett has not had any recent encounters with law. Nevertheless, these incidents greatly detract from Mr. Baggett’s credibility, especially given that one of these offenses directly implicates his character for truthfulness.

    Even more troubling than the convictions themselves is Mr. Baggett’s explanation for the convictions.
    For the theft conviction, he swore he inadvertently picked up a computer part at the post office and,
    when he took it back, was convicted for theft of a computer. With respect to the assault conviction, he
    testified a guy threatened him and he merely “shot up in the air” yet was convicted of aggravated
    assault. Not only do Mr. Baggett’s explanations sound implausible, but the description of Mr. Baggett’s
    offenses in the opinions of the courts tell a completely different story from what was presented to this
    Court. Thus, it appears to the Court that Mr. Baggett was testifying untruthfully at Defendant’s sentencing hearing with respect to his prior criminal record.”

    Curt Baggett is not the expert the defendant thinks he is. This will not go well.

    1. SHG Post author

      Since I didn’t credit the forged signature claim per se, I chose not to look into Baggett’s bona fides. This, however, comes as no surprise.

  3. Paleo

    What possible motive would Leduc have to forge his client’s signature on the plea paperwork? If he had done so, seems as if the client would say “I never signed that” at the allocution hearing.

    This has to be some kind of play for victimhood status in the public eye. There’s probably a lot mo money in being a MAGA martyr. The motion fails, he does his eight months, and comes out with some martyr bucks.

    1. SHG Post author

      It makes no sense for Leduc to forge, or be complicit in the forging, of the signature for that reason, if not many others.

  4. AH

    Is it concerning that LeDuc is commenting about his client to Politico or is that fair game now that the validity of the signature has been called into question? Something about sharing that information just doesn’t sit right unless he was compelled to testify about the circumstances under which the signature was obtained.

    1. SHG Post author

      An excellent question. It is concerning, and Leduc should mind his mouth regardless of the fact that he may not be violating the code since he’s being accused of ineffective assistance and, at minimum, complicity in the forgery of his client’s signature. Even so, however, I would still say nothing without a court order and, even with a court order, not make comment out of court about client confidences.

  5. Bruce A

    Ah, yes, as to Ms Stewart’s experience: “military intelligence, a contradiction in terms,” per Groucho, Carlin, and others before them. AUSA Sedky’s critique of Ms Stewart’s pleadings aroused my curiosity enough to pull up the case in Pacer and take a look see. Well worth the $2.20 to read one for entertainment value alone, especially the attached exhibits. I’ll put Mr Leduc’s 30+ years of defense experience (also an Army JAG Reserve Colonel) up against Ms Stewart’s (2020 Ave Maria Law School?) all day long, but those of us who have served in Federal courts know there will never be a 2255 hearing anyway. Too bad, it could have been fun to read the transcript, but a waste of court’s time. If Ms Stewart ever files the 2255 petition it will be dismissed without a hearing. The plea colloquy alone should be enough to kill the petition. As an AUSA (now retired) I wrote scores of 2255 responses. Canned boilerplate responses to be filed by gov’t.

      1. Bruce A

        Of course, and I’d try to sell reserved seat tickets to my colleagues in the office! I did not quote any of Ms Stewart’s pleading or anything from the exhibits, but AH above should know that some of Stewart’s exhibits were emails from Leduc to his client, presumably privileged communications attached probably without approval by Hodgins or Leduc. When an allegation of IOC was made in a 2255 MDFL practice was to invite the defense attorney to submit an affidavit to be filed as an exhibit to the gov’t response. The MDFL Federal Defender’s Office had a policy to decline that invitation. It was a rare case that ever made it to a hearing. In an email from Leduc to Stewart he asserted the plea agreement was vetted all the way to the top, including the AG, because this was the first case to get to a plea and DOJ wanted to set some precedent. According to Leduc, the plea agreement included the standard waiver of appeal, which surely was covered in the colloquy. But as you implied in the post, things aren’t looking good for Mr Hodgins and Ms Stewart may suffer as well down at the bottom of that rabbit hole. Her special kind of buffoonery quickly gets a reputation among the courthouse crowd. I suppose if DOJ wanted to really pound hard on Ms Stewart they could craft a response that invited a hearing, but in my experience they don’t play that game.

  6. Them

    I assume the measure here would be a reasonable doubt rather than a preponderance of the evidence. In any event, it seems to me that the fringe, (pillow man, sidney, rudi, and countless others) have latched on an ingenious approach that leverages the 24-hour news cycle to create doubt. The media reports on this “gentleman’s” withdrawal of his plea provide a platform for introducing doubt for those who want to believe. The value of adding fuel (cheap inflammable fuel) to the dumpster fire appears to far exceed the ability of much of the intended audience’s ability to think. Sadly (or perhaps frighteningly), the courts seem to be the last defense on parsing fact from fantasy. Unfortunately, the speed at which the courts act and ultimately dispense with the lunacy is lost in our “breaking news” addiction.

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