After spending four years at Rockview State prison, a Dillsburg man has been released on $100,000 unsecured bail.
Why? Because a Centre County judge said there was “no reasonable basis” for his attorney’s actions.
Christopher Ryerse, 25, was sentenced to 10 to 26 years in prison in 2014 for charges stemming from a 2013 incident in which Ryerse allegedly raped an unconscious female. The conviction and sentence were both vacated Feb. 8.
Ryerse, then an employee at Little Caesars Pizza in Dillsburg, and a fellow employee came to State College to assist local Little Caesars’ employees in new training procedures. The female became ill after having alcoholic drinks at a Super 8 motel once the store closed and friends helped her to the bathroom before they left.
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Ryerse moved her to a bed and removed her clothes while she was unconscious and, when she woke up, her clothes were on the floor and Ryerse was in the bed beside her. Her clothes were tested by State College police and found to have Ryerse’s fluids on them, according to a previous Centre Daily Times report.
Ryerse filed a petition for post-conviction collateral relief in December 2016, which alleged nine areas of ineffective legal assistance by his attorney Tami Fees.
Ryerse, who was intoxicated during the incident, said Fees misinformed him that voluntary intoxication is a complete defense to rape. A day before his trial, Ryerse and his mother visited with Fees to look for any information in the discovery packet regarding Ryerse’s level of intoxication to help with his defense, according to a court document.
Fees left the office and went furniture shopping for eight hours, but Ryerse and his mother spent those eight hours looking through the packet to assist with the preparation of a defense that is legally invalid.
“Petitioner’s claim is of arguable merit and there is no reasonable basis for attorney Fees’ actions,” President Judge Pamela Ruest said in her decision. “Petitioner was clearly prejudiced by attorney Fees’ actions, as petitioner stated he would likely have made a different decision about whether to accept the plea deal if he hadn’t been so confident in the voluntary intoxication defense succeeding at trial.”
According to a separate court document, Ryerse’s mother recalled a conversation with Fess during the pretrial conference.
“I recall her coming up to Chris and me after talking with (assistant district attorney Nathan) Boob and asking Chris, ‘Do you want a plea?’ I recall Chris asking attorney Fees, ‘What’s a plea?’ She responded by asking Chris, ‘Do you want to spend six years in prison?’ to which my son responded, ‘No.’ I recall her then saying, ‘Well then we’re not taking the plea.’“
Ruest’s decision notes a plea offer that would have meant four to eight years in jail, meaning Ryerse might already have been released had he taken the deal.
Ryerse’s mother added she and her son never discussed the possibility of him going to jail with Fees. Ryerse continued to act upon the belief that he was not likely to be convicted at all due to Fees’ representation that voluntary intoxication was a complete defense, according to a court document.
“I did not have the slightest idea that jail time for my son was a possibility, let along likely,” according to the document.
During his hearing, Ryerse and his mother testified they were never advised about potential sentencing exposure. Fees was unable to recall discussing it with Ryerse.
Ryerse’s petition, which was filed by his new attorney Julian Allatt, expressed astonishment at Fees’ actions.
“There could be no reasonable basis for the failure of attorney Fees to specifically, articulately and correctly advise petitioner as to his sentencing exposure and to specifically explain the benefits and disadvantages of the Commonwealth’s plea offer,” Allatt wrote in the petition. “The failure of attorney Fees to do so rendered the plea negotiation process an empty exercise devoid of context and deprived petitioner of his right to make informed choices and participate meaningfully in his own defense.”
The case has been picked up by the state attorney general’s office for prosecution in a new trial, should that occur. That will mean that Ryerse is the only consistent person in the case. In addition to turnover on both the prosecution and defense tables, a different judge is hearing the case as well.
Judge Jonathan Grine, the original trial judge, recused himself in the case on Aug. 15, 2017.
That was five days after a communication from the Judicial Conduct Board to Grine regarding disposition on a complaint against him. Grine accepted a letter of counsel from the board regarding a “simply unacceptable and inappropriate” relationship with Stacy Parks Miller, then the prosecutor in the case.