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Craig Will Try to Take Back His Plea

Monday, 10 Sep 2007 08:24 AM

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WASHINGTON -- Sen. Larry Craig should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea in a sex sting because he was under extreme stress after being hounded by journalists asking questions about his sexuality, his lawyer argues.

Craig, an Idaho Republican, pleaded guilty in August to disorderly conduct following a sting operation in a men's bathroom at the Minneapolis airport. His lawyer, William Martin, said he will file court documents Monday trying to undo that decision so Craig can fight the charge.

Martin said Monday that Craig did not "knowingly and intelligently enter a guilty plea." The senator simply admitted conduct that "itself does not constitute a crime," Martin said.

"He admits to going into the bathroom, he admits to moving his foot, he admits to reaching his hand down," Martin said on NBC's "Today" show. "That's not a crime."

Persuading a judge to withdraw a guilty plea is difficult but Craig will argue that he was under too much stress to knowingly plead guilty, Martin said.

"He was under tremendous pressure," Martin said in a telephone interview.

In particular, Martin cited pressure from Craig's hometown newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, which spent months investigating whether Craig engaged in homosexual encounters.

Craig, who has denied such suggestions and accused the newspaper of conducting a "witch hunt," was so concerned about that investigation, he quickly pleaded guilty when arrested in the bathroom sex sting, Martin said. Craig did not consult with a lawyer or appear in court.

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

A police report alleged that Craig had solicited sex from a male officer at the Minneapolis airport in June.

Craig will also argue in court documents that he cannot have pleaded guilty since what he did was not illegal. The police officer said Craig bumped his foot, then tried to signal him with hand gestures beneath the stall divider.

Craig maintains he inadvertently touched the officer's foot but 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.

Martin said he was 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. His chief spokesman later said Craig had dropped virtually all notions of trying to finish his third term.

"My job is to get him back to where he was before his rights were taken away," Martin said.

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.

But Judy Smith, a spokeswoman for Craig's legal team, said the lawyers are focused only on the Minnesota case, not political outcomes.

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.

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.

Specter said that when he learned the details of the arrest "I was convinced that he couldn't be convicted if he fought the case."

Minnesota law is that a guilty plea may be withdrawn if it was not intelligently made "and what Sen. Craig did was by no means intelligent," said Specter.

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