Supreme Court Watch Supreme Court vacates sentence in shoplifting case

By Tim Willert

The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated a life sentence for shoplifting being served by an Oklahoma City woman.

The Supreme Court on Monday ordered the case of Cecilia Cathleen Rodriguez to be returned to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals for further consideration in light of a recent ruling by justices who vacated a Missouri man's sentence because he did not receive adequate representation during the plea-bargain process.

Rodriguez, 59, was sentenced to life in prison in March 2009 after pleading guilty to grand larceny for stealing a $275 purse and a $380 purse from a Dillard's department store.

Oklahoma County District Court Judge Ray C. Elliott imposed the unusually long term after learning Rodriguez was a heroin addict who had been punished almost 30 other times for theft-related crimes dating to 1971.

At her sentencing, Elliott called Rodriguez a "one-person crime wave" and also revoked her probation on a 2000 larceny case, adding 17 years to her life term.

Oklahoma County prosecutors had offered Rodriguez 17 years in prison as part of a plea agreement, but the offer went unaccepted and she entered a blind plea.

Attorneys appealing Rodriguez's case argued the offer never was adequately conveyed to Rodriguez by her defense attorney.

Carolyn Merritt, the Oklahoma City criminal defense attorney who filed a petition for relief with the Supreme Court on Rodriguez's behalf, said Tuesday that she is entitled to have her case reconsidered.

"Cecilia does know about the court's decision and she is very pleased about it," Merritt said. "I think it gives her another chance of getting relief from a life sentence."

In the petition, Merritt argued that Rodriguez's plea was not entered into in a knowing, voluntary and intelligent manner because it was entered with inadvertence and without due deliberation.

"Citizens charged with crimes have the constitutional right to effective assistance of defense counsel during the plea process because most all criminal cases are resolved during the plea process," Merritt said.

The U.S. Supreme Court directed the appeals court to reconsider the Rodriguez case in light of Missouri v. Frye, a March 21 ruling in which justices found that a defense attorney did not adequately convey the state's sentencing recommendation to his client.

In February 2010, a divided appeals court refused to reduce Rodriguez's time, finding that "the trial court did not abuse its discretion in sentencing Rodriguez to the maximum term of years based on the facts and circumstances of this particular case.

"The sentence assessed by the trial court was within the sentencing range for the crime and it does not shock this court's conscience," the majority found.

Two judges disagreed. One called the penalty shockingly excessive, and another, now retired, called the punishment ridiculous.

The retired judge, Charles Chapel, wrote that "Rodriguez is a habitual petty criminal. She is a drug addict who steals to feed her addiction. Most of her convictions, like this one, were for property offenses. While she is a nuisance and a lawbreaker, she is neither a violent criminal nor an imminent danger to society. This life sentence is a miscarriage of justice."

Elliott, the judge who sentenced Rodriguez, declined to comment on the Supreme Court's decision, citing pending litigation. The case could end up back in his courtroom if the appeals court requires further evidence to make a decision.

The appeals court also could modify or vacate Rodriguez's sentence, attorneys said.

Published: Fri, Mar 30, 2012