Craig Files Court Papers to Withdraw Guilty Plea

Sen. Larry Craig on Monday filed papers asking a Minnesota judge to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea on a charge stemming from an airport vice sting.

Documents filed in Hennepin County District Court said Craig was in a "state of intense anxiety" following his June arrest in the men's bathroom at the Minneapolis airport. Craig "felt compelled to grasp the lifeline offered to him by the police officer" by pleading guilty to disorderly conduct, according to the documents.

The police report alleged that Craig had solicited sex from a male officer at the airport, which the senator has denied.

The court filing said Craig panicked and accepted the plea rather than seek the advice of an attorney. As a result, Craig's guilty plea was not "knowingly and understandingly made," and the evidence against him is insufficient to support the plea, the papers said.

Craig's attorney, William Martin, said Craig was under too much stress caused by media inquiries into his sexuality to make a sound decision. In interviews Monday, Martin faulted Craig's hometown newspaper for the senator's state of mind.

"He was under tremendous pressure," Martin said, citing an investigation by The Idaho Statesman. The paper spent months investigating whether Craig, a conservative who has been a vocal opponent of gay marriage, engaged in homosexual activity.

Craig has denied the allegations and accused the newspaper of conducting a witch hunt. Martin said the senator was so concerned about the paper's investigation that he quickly pleaded guilty without consulting a lawyer or appearing in court.

He figured, "I'm innocent, but, if this will make it go away, I'll do it," Martin said.

Statesman executive editor Vicki Gowler issued a statement Monday defending the paper's investigation, which she said was done with "great care." She said its length was "due in large part to difficulties we encountered getting information from the senator."

Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the commission that runs the airport, declined to comment on Martin's arguments.

"We do feel we have a strong case, and he's already made his plea, and it's been accepted by the court," Hogan said. "From our standpoint, this is already a done deal. Mr. Craig was arrested and signed a guilty plea, and from our standpoint, this case is already over."

Craig maintains he inadvertently touched the officer's foot and made no hand gestures. He said he was merely picking up a piece of paper.

"Even if you accept that he did what he did, it's not a crime," Martin said.

Craig's three-page guilty plea includes acknowledgments that, "I understand that the court will not accept a plea of guilty from anyone who claims to be innocent ... I now make no claim that I am innocent ... ," and, "I did the following: Engaged in conduct which I knew or should have known tended to arouse alarm or resentment ... ." Craig signed the bottom of each page.

Craig was sentenced to pay $575 in fines and fees and was put on unsupervised probation for a year, with a stayed 10-day jail sentence.

To reverse his guilty plea, Craig would have to convince a judge that there was a "manifest injustice" in case. Often that includes showing that the sentence imposed was harsher than the one the defendant anticipated with a plea bargain. However, that is not the situation in Craig's case.

Legal experts have said such motions are rarely brought, and when they are they are rarely successful.

Motions to withdraw a guilty plea are usually heard by the same judge who heard the original case, usually at least two weeks after they're requested, court officials have said.

In exchange for Craig's plea, the prosecutor dropped a gross misdemeanor charge of interference to privacy. If he is allowed to withdraw his guilty plea, the prosecutor would have the option to refile the dropped gross misdemeanor interference with privacy charge, which stemmed from an allegation that Craig peered into the bathroom stall occupied by the undercover police officer.

A conviction on that gross misdemeanor charge could bring a jail sentence of up to a year, although it would be unusual for a defendant to receive the maximum sentence.

Martin said he is not involved in discussions about Craig's future in the Senate. Craig originally announced he would resign at the end of the month, then said he was reconsidering that decision.

The senator's chief spokesman later said Craig had dropped virtually all notions of trying to finish his third term.

Craig's congressional spokesman has said the only way that Craig is likely to remain in the Senate is if a court moves quickly to overturn the conviction, something that is unlikely to happen before the end of the month.

Many Republicans have urged Craig to say with no uncertainty that he will resign. That would spare the party an ethics dilemma and the embarrassment of dealing with a colleague who had been stripped of his committee leadership posts.

It also would negate the need for a Senate ethics committee investigation, which GOP leaders have requested.

If Craig succeeds in undoing his plea, he would likely try to have the charges dismissed to avoid an embarrassing trial.

Appearing on CNN's Late Edition, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) said Craig is entitled to his day in court.

"Maybe he'll be convicted, but I doubt it," said Specter, the Senate Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican.

After learning the details of the arrest, Specter said he was convinced Craig would not have been convicted if the Idaho senator had fought the charge.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press.

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