Carroll County Judge Brett Geisler has denied a Christiansburg man’s request to withdraw his guilty plea to murder and felony hit and run in a fatal wreck that claimed the life of a child in Cana in 2014.
Christopher Dean Woolwine, 30, pled guilty in Carroll County Circuit Court on May 26 to second-degree murder and felony hit and run after a wreck that occurred on Halloween Night 2014 in Cana, claiming the life of his four-year-old son, Cole. Two days before his sentencing hearing on Aug. 25, Woolwine fired his attorney, Brandon Boyles, and requested to have his guilty pleas withdrawn. Woolwine faces up to 50 years in prison and a fine of up to $102,500 between the two charges.
Those charges stem from an incident Oct. 31, 2014 in which Woolwine was the operator of a 2000 Dodge van that was traveling north on Highway 52, near Lancaster Drive, just north of the North Carolina state line. Woolwine’s vehicle initially struck another vehicle in the rear while traveling north, then Woolwine turned and fled the scene southbound when his vehicle ran off the right side of the road, struck a tree and overturned back into the roadway approximately one-tenth of a mile south of the original crash. Woolwine and his young son, Cole, were injured in the crash, and the child later died at Wake Forest Baptist Trauma Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Woolwine’s new defense attorney, Chip DeHart, opened the Sept. 22 proceeding in Carroll County Circuit Court by telling Judge Brett Geisler that his client would like to withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial. Commonwealth’s Attorney Nathan H. Lyons opposed the motion, noting the court had already found Woolwine guilty in May.
DeHart called Woolwine to the stand and asked his client if he felt he didn’t have adequate time to consider his plea.
“Yes,” Woolwine said. “Brandon Boyles came to see me at visitation in jail and told me this is the only thing they will offer me. He told me he would call the next day. I had 24 hours to decide on the rest of my life, whether I would plea or not.”
Woolwine said he felt like he had to make a decision right then, adding he felt he did not make the right decision. DeHart reminded Woolwine that he would have to show evidence he could present at trial in order for his guilty plea to be withdrawn. DeHart said it was his understanding that Woolwine had no recollection of either accident Oct. 31, 2014.
“That’s correct,” Woolwine said, adding that he wished to go forward with a jury trial.
Lyons then took his turn interrogating Woolwine, asking the defendant if he not already heard all the evidence against him when he was arrested and during his preliminary hearing. He then noted that Woolwine had 90 days between his preliminary hearing and the entering of his guilty plea to decide if he wanted to go to trial or not.
“But he put me on the spot,” Woolwine said of Boyles. “The reason I took the plea was because I was told I’d be charged with DUI manslaughter on top of that.”
Lyons then asked if Woolwine was told he could enter a guilty plea or have a trial. Lyons asked if the defendant remembered hearing sentencing guidelines, if he remembered signing a written document that indicated no one coerced him into a guilty plea, if he could read or write, if he understood the maximum punishment.
“You say you don’t remember the accident and this is your sole basis of defense,” Lyons asked?
“I want a trial,” Woolwine said.
Lyons asked if he remembered writing a statement to the Virginia State Police detailing his involvement in the two accidents.
“That officer more or less told me what to write,” Woolwine said. “I just left the hospital and didn’t remember anything until I woke up the next day.”
Woolwine agreed that the statement was in his handwriting and included his signature. He also answered affirmatively to Lyons’ question about Woolwine asking to have family members and friends submit letters on his behalf for the sentencing hearing. So even though he was working with a probation officer preparing for sentencing, Lyons wanted to know why Woolwine never thought about asking him about withdrawing his guilty plea.
“I didn’t think he was the person I needed to talk to,” Woolwine said.
Lyons asked why Woolwine didn’t tell anyone he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea until less than five days before the sentencing.
“I didn’t have any idea until a few days before court,” Woolwine said, later adding, “I’ve done nothing but be good for 30 years.”
“And your defense now is you don’t remember,” Lyons asked?
“I don’t remember hitting the first truck. If I did, I wouldn’t have left,” Woolwine said. “I remember going to work and other things (earlier in the day).”
When Woolwine entered his guilty plea in May, Lyons read Woolwine’s statement to the court in which Woolwine admitted to leaving his Christiansburg home to pick up a man named Roy Cox. The two went to a liquor store in Christiansburg, where Woolwine purchased a 750 milliliter bottle of Devil’s Cut, a Jim Beam bourbon product. Woolwine stated he drank half the bottle of bourbon and also smoked pot.
“He stated that he also drank a 24-ounce can of Four Loko and that he went to North Carolina to purchase synthetic pot,” Lyons said in May.
On Sept. 22, Lyons asked Woolwine if he remembered writing that he regretted driving with his son in the vehicle while he was intoxicated.
“If I realized what happened, I would have never drove, especially with the likelihood of hurting someone there and him dying, I would never have drove,” Woolwine said.
Woolwine stated he decided to try to withdraw his guilty plea in the case when he realized his first attorney “didn’t try to do anything other than to jump at the first thing they offered him. I realized I’d be better off to not have him. He did absolutely nothing for me.”
Lyons asked Woolwine if he felt he was coerced into making a guilty plea, even though he had signed documentation saying he was not coerced.
“It’s not like I felt like he was going to punch me in the face, but I was told if I didn’t sign, I’d be charged with another charge,” Woolwine said.
DeHart told Geisler he heard Woolwine say his statement was fed to him as to what to say. As far as the motion to withdraw the guilty plea, DeHart said Woolwine doesn’t have to prove his innocence, just that he can offer defenses in a trial. The basis of Woolwine’s defense is that he didn’t have recollection of the accident and that his statement was more or less given to him.
Lyons countered that not having recollection of an incident is not a defense in the state of Virginia, noting several examples of case law that backed up his point. The Commonwealth Attorney reminded the court he asked Woolwine if he was aware of the evidence against him at the time he was charged, during his preliminary hearing, and during other court proceedings.
“He answered yes, so there is no surprise there,” Lyons said. “I asked about his relationship with his attorney. He said he didn’t feel satisfied. That is not something under case law that allows you to withdraw a plea.”
Lyons noted that Woolwine also said he regretted driving intoxicated with his son in the vehicle.
“There are safeguards in place to protect you when entering a guilty plea. That is why we have the statements, ‘Nobody coerced me, nobody threatened me, I can read, I can write. I was pleased with services of my attorney.’”
Lyons continued that Woolwine was fully preparing for his pre-sentencing hearing. Additionally, he was given an extra 30 days above the typical 60 days to make preparations for the pre-sentencing hearing. There were no sudden surprises, Lyons said.
“I believe he was planning for mitigation evidence to be presented and then comes up with this conflict with his attorney and decides he will withdraw,” Lyons said.
After hearing both sides, Judge Geisler said this was a tragic case in which a boy was killed. But he agreed with the Commonwealth’s position that a reasonable defense has to be offered in order to withdraw a guilty plea. He also agreed with Lyons that there was no surprise with regard to evidence Woolwine had seen from the time of the arrest and preliminary hearing. There were ample opportunities to go forward with a trial at the previous hearing, Geisler added, saying he believed Woolwine made all previous statements freely and with his own knowledge.
“This is a pretty straightforward case. The consequences are extreme because of what happened, the death of a child,” Geisler said. “I agree with the Commonwealth, there is no new reasonable defense or any surprise.”
Geisler then denied Woolwine’s request to withdraw his guilty plea and set a sentencing date for Oct. 20 at 1 p.m.
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN