Even if Soviet emigre Nikolai Ogorodnikov should get permission to withdraw his guilty plea to espionage charges, as he has asked to do, “it’s not going to have any impact” on the impending spy trial of former FBI Agent Richard W. Miller, Ogorodnikov’s court-appointed attorney said Tuesday.
In a surprise appearance Monday in the court where Miller’s trial is scheduled to start next week, Ogorodnikov told U.S. District Judge David Kenyon that he had been coerced into entering a guilty plea with his wife, Svetlana, last month.
On a motion of the federal public defender’s office, Kenyon appointed attorney Terry Amdur to confer with the convicted man to determine whether he has legal grounds to withdraw his plea.
Amdur said Tuesday that there is “some question as to whether (the guilty plea) is valid, but also some question as to whether it is wise to challenge” and be tried again.
After Monday’s court hearing in which Ogorodnikov protested his innocence, Amdur said his client had pleaded guilty “because his wife asked him to, that’s his claim.” The couple’s plea was entered under a negotiated arrangement. In exchange for the pleas, Svetlana Ogorodnikova, 35, was sentenced to 18 years in prison and her 52-year-old husband to eight years.
According to Amdur, his client said he pleaded guilty because it was the only way he could see to save his wife from life imprisonment.
Sources in the U.S. attorney’s office said it is “very rare” that a guilty plea is allowed to be withdrawn after sentence has been imposed.
There is, however, a legal avenue for filing such a motion if there appears to be grounds for a prisoner to claim deprivation of some constitutional rights during the proceedings that led to the guilty plea or conviction, one assistant U.S. attorney said.
In Ogorodnikov’s case, he claims that his plea was involuntary, constituting a violation of his rights.
In a declaration accompanying the motion Kenyon heard on Monday, U.S. Public Defender Peter M. Horstman said Ogorodnikov told the public defender who had represented him in his trial that although he pleaded guilty, he was innocent and had been coerced.
Horstman and Randy Sue Pollock, a former deputy public defender who is now in private practice, met last Friday with the prisoner, who “confirmed that he wishes to challenge the voluntariness of his guilty plea,” the document stated.
Horstman’s motion asked for the appointment of an outside attorney to decide whether to move to attack the plea because “our office is not in a position to neutrally and independently evaluate (his claims) because we participated in the guilty plea.”
Jury selection is under way this week for the trial of former FBI agent Miller, who is accused of conspiring to pass classified documents to the couple in exchange for $65,000 in cash and gold.
Amdur said Tuesday that no matter what decision is made regarding Ogorodnikov’s surprise request, there is “no way” it would affect the Miller trial. “Even if a motion is made . . . and granted, we wouldn’t be talking about a new trial (for Ogorodnikov) before the middle of next year,” the lawyer said.
Besides, he added, “I have got to get security clearance before I can even have access to the file, and they tell me that will take a month.”