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Minnesota Court Refuses to Order Specific Performance in Murder Plea

by Lonnie Burton

On December 27, 2016, the Court of Appeals of Minnesota denied an appeal filed by a woman who pled guilty to third degree murder, but who claimed the state reneged on the terms of the plea agreement. The ruling bound the parties to the guilty plea, but allowed prosecution of the woman on other charges she had thought were dismissed by the agreement.

Melissa Rae Guillette pled guilty in a Rice County, Minnesota, court to a charge of third degree murder (controlled substance). As part of the plea agreement, a charge of introducing contraband into a state prison was dismissed, the parties agreed to recommend a bottom range sentence of 128 months, and the state agreed not to prosecute Guillette on other charges in Douglas County.

At the plea hearing the court expressed concern with being able to legally bind Douglas County with the Rice County plea agreement, and directed the state to obtain a letter from the Douglas County prosecutor confirming a non-prosecution agreement. The judge then accepted Guillette's plea, on the condition of receipt of the Douglas County letter, and told Guillette that she could withdraw her plea if the letter did not materialize. Sentencing was scheduled for several months later.

Douglas County did send the non-prosecution agreement, based on its understanding that Guillette would receive a 128-month sentence, thus subsuming any sentence she would receive if convicted in Douglas County. Later, though, it was discovered that Guillette's Rice County sentence would be only 74-87 months, and Douglas County withdrew its non-prosecution agreement.

At sentencing, the judge informed Guillette that she could withdraw her plea, but she insisted that the state abide by the terms it had agreed to. She further argued that Douglas County's agreement could not and should not be withdrawn. In the end, she refused to withdraw her plea, insisting that the court enforce the original plea deal. The court accepted Guillette's plea, ruled that the Douglas County agreement was a contingency which was not met, and sentenced Guillette to 86 months. Guillette appealed, arguing that she was entitled to specific performance of the plea agreement in that Douglas County should be barred from prosecuting her there.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, however, holding that the court did not err in refusing to order specific performance. The appellate court ruled that once the bargained-for sentence terms became unavailable, the agreement became unenforceable, allowing Guillette to withdraw her plea, an option she specifically declined.

"Withdrawal of the appellant's guilty plea was always the contemplated remedy if Douglas County did not agree to refrain from filing charges," the court found. The trial court "did not err when it gave the appellant the right to withdraw her guilty plea rather than ordering specific performance of the non-prosecution agreement."

It is unclear from the documents from the appellate court if Douglas County ever prosecuted Guillette, for what charges, or what the outcome of the case was. See: State of Minnesota v. Guillette, No. A16-0426 (C.A. Mn. 2016).

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Related legal case

State of Minnesota v. Guillette