In 1994, William Araujo pleaded no contest to burglary in Rhode Island Superior Court, after which he served a 10-year suspended sentence and 10 years of probation, all without incident. Then, in 2008, on his way home from a trip to Italy, he was stopped by immigration officials who told him that his conviction was grounds for deportation.
Araujo hired John R. Grasso, a 43-year-old former police officer who is now a criminal defense attorney in Providence. Since he graduated from law school in 2006, Grasso has developed a specialty in post-conviction relief, and earlier this month he used a novel legal argument to halt Araujo’s deportation proceedings.
Grasso convinced Superior Court Judge Susan E. McGuirl that Araujo’s burglary plea was defective because there was no sign in the record that Araujo understood the nature of the crime to which he was pleading no contest. That, Grasso argued, was a violation of Rule 11 of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure.
After considering that argument for more than six months, McGuirl agreed and vacated Araujo’s plea. Her Feb. 12 decision states that “the defendant cannot be expected to understand the elements and nature of burglary when the prosecutor uses the word itself and nothing more to present its case.”
Calling the decision “big,” Grasso says it gives lawyers a new way to help criminal clients get a second chance after they’ve pleaded to crimes. Lawyers Weekly reporter Julia Reischel spoke with him about the ruling’s implications.
Grasso sworn in as a member of the Bar of the United States Supreme Court.