Reginaldo Etienne — accused of sexually assaulting two women in separate attacks on the Kenosha County Bike Trail last year — was scheduled to be sentenced Monday.
Instead, Etienne attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, saying he had been pressured into taking the deal. “I felt I didn’t have any choice but to accept the plea,” Etienne told Judge Bruce Schroeder.
With that, his defense attorney Terry Rose asked the court for permission to quit the case, saying a new attorney would have to represent Etienne if he moved forward with his attempt to take back his guilty plea and go to trial.
Schroeder granted Rose’s request, saying the Kenosha Public Defender’s office would be directed to appoint a new attorney for Etienne. The court set a date to hear a motion to withdraw the plea — and possibly to sentence Etienne if he decides not to move forward with that plan, or if Schroeder rejects the motion to withdraw.
“He’s a coward,” a woman called from the gallery as Etienne was led from the courtroom by deputies after the hearing Monday.
Etienne, 32, of Kenosha, is accused of two separate assaults along the bike trail last year. In March 2018, a 67-year-old woman walking in the 9100 block of the trail was forced to the ground and assaulted. Two months later, an 18-year-old woman was walking in the 9400 block of the trail when a man attacked her. DNA evidence led investigators to Etienne.
Last month, Etienne pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree sexual assault with use of force, each count carrying a possible sentence of 40 years in prison. In exchange, the state dropped eight additional counts, along with the repeater status on the charges.
District Attorney Michael Graveley said at the plea hearing that the goal of the prosecution was that a conviction would lead to a sentence that would prevent Etienne from victimizing other women in the future. He said a plea agreement that could lead to Etienne spending as much as 80 years in prison met that goal without also requiring the victims to testify at trial.
On Monday, Graveley said the state would “vigorously oppose any motion to withdraw a plea.”
Graveley said Etienne made the plea after considering it for some time, saying that the state’s offer in the case had not changed since the prosecution began. “Simply having a desire now to go to trial is not sufficient,” he said.
When criminal defendants enter a guilty plea in court, the judge asks them a long series of questions to make sure they understand the process before entering the plea. “I asked you if your were satisfied with the legal services that you had, and you said you were. I asked you if you were rushed into it, and you said you were not,” Schroeder told Etienne.
Judges also ask defendants whether they are thinking clearly when they enter their plea or if they are under the influence of any drugs or alcohol. They explain the possible penalties and prison sentence that comes with the plea, and explain that the judge does not have to follow the sentencing recommendations that come as part of a plea agreement.
“We want to make sure that people have thought it over, that they listened to the advice that was presented to them,” Schroeder told Etienne.
For Etienne to be successful in withdrawing his plea, he would have to show not just that he had changed his mind, but that he was somehow misled in making his decision to plead guilty.
Prosecutors have a strong case against Etienne. Along with the DNA evidence that ties Etienne to the assaults, one of the victims identified him in a photo lineup, according to the criminal complaint. Investigators found car keys at the scene of the first assault that were later found to belong to a van owned by Etienne’s sister. She told investigators that she had loaned Etienne her van on the day of the March assault. Etienne’s girlfriend told investigators he had told her he lost the car keys while walking on the bike trail and had taken her with him to look for them at night, but they had not found the keys.
The complaint states that Etienne’s girlfriend also told investigators that on May 21 he came to the home where they were staying and washed his face, saying he had been pepper sprayed by someone he attempted to rob.