WASHINGTON – Sen. Larry Craig sought to undo his guilty plea in an airport sex sting on Monday, claiming that he admitted to the charge in a panic to avoid triggering a story about his sexuality in his hometown newspaper.
Craig had denied to editors at the Idaho Statesman that he was gay just weeks before his June 11 arrest in the bathroom of the Minneapolis airport. The paper didn't run a story, but Craig thought his arrest would change that.
Craig's attorneys wrote that "faced with the pressure of an aggressive interrogation and the consequences of public embarrassment, Senator Craig panicked and chose to plead to a crime he did not commit."
Craig's affidavit said he decided on the day of his arrest to plead guilty to whatever charge was eventually filed against him.
The timing could become important because more than a month and a half passed between Craig's June 11 arrest and Aug. 1, when he signed a guilty plea to a disorderly conduct charge.
Craig's actions, his attorneys argued, were influenced in part by police Sgt. Dave Karsnia, who arrested and interrogated the senator. Karsnia told the senator he could resolve the case by paying a fine, and added: "I don't call media."
"In his mind, the terms of the plea included the promise made by Officer Karsnia that the alleged incident would not be released to the media," Craig's attorneys wrote.
"While in his state of intense anxiety, Senator Craig felt compelled to grasp the lifeline offered to him by the police officer," they wrote.
Prosecutors will oppose Craig's motion, said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which brought the charges.
"From our standpoint, this is already a done deal," Hogan said.
News of Craig's guilty plea brought intense pressure on him from Senate Republican leaders and other colleagues in Washington to resign. He first announced he intended to resign by Sept. 30, then said he was reconsidering. A spokesman later said Craig had dropped virtually all notion of trying to finish his third term, unless a court moves quickly to overturn the conviction.
That's unlikely to happen before the end of the month. Craig's attorneys asked for a hearing for their motion, but no date was immediately set on Monday.
Craig was sentenced to pay $575 in fines and fees and was put on unsupervised probation for a year, with a a 10-day suspended jail sentence hanging over his head during his one-year unsupervised probation if he commits the same offense again.
In exchange for Craig's plea, the prosecutor dropped a gross misdemeanor charge of interference to privacy.
Withdrawing a guilty plea is rare. Defendants have to convince a judge — usually the same one who accepted the plea — that a "manifest injustice" has been committed.
Because Craig didn't have an attorney, the burden will be on prosecutors to show the plea was appropriate, said Steve Simon, a University of Minnesota law professor and legal defense expert.
Simon said one problem Craig's attorneys can exploit is the failure of the written plea agreement to explicitly say he is waiving his right to a lawyer.
"The court's going to look very carefully at whether or not it's a significant defect, and they'll give great weight to it," he said.
Minnesota case law requires a guilty plea to be "accurate, voluntary, and intelligent," Craig's attorneys wrote. His panic at the idea that his bathroom arrest would become public means his plea was not intelligent, they wrote.
Winning that legal argument would only re-start Craig's courtroom troubles, not end them. Prosecutors can re-file the gross misdemeanor charge dropped in the plea agreement. And Craig would eventually have to convince the judge either to dismiss the charges, or win the case at trial.
The gross misdemeanor charge was based on the officer's allegation that Craig peered into his bathroom stall. 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.
The irony is that many defense attorneys have said they think Craig would have had a decent chance in front of a jury. The charges accused Craig of sending solicitation signals, including tapping his foot and waving his hand under the stall divider. Craig said the officer misinterpreted those things.
"It happens all the time — a whole lot of people plead guilty to things that they may never have been convicted on if they had gone to trial," said Paul B. Ahern, a defense attorney in suburban Minnetonka and a former prosecutor.
Many Republicans have urged Craig to say for sure 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 had requested.