Carroll County Judge Brett Geisler has denied a Christiansburg man’s request to withdraw his guilty plea to murder and felony hit and run in a fatal wreck that claimed the life of his 4-year-old son in a series of Halloween night crashes in Cana, Virginia.
Christopher Dean Woolwine, 30, pleaded guilty in Carroll County Circuit Court on May 26 to second-degree murder and felony hit and run after two wrecks he caused while driving under the influence, claiming the life of his son, Cole. Two days before his sentencing hearing on Aug. 25, Woolwine fired his attorney, Brandon Boyles, and requested to have his guilty pleas withdrawn. Woolwine faces up to 50 years in prison and a fine of up to $102,500 between the two charges.
Those charges stem from an incident on Oct. 31 in which Woolwine was the operator of a 2000 Dodge van that was traveling north on U.S. 52, near Lancaster Drive, just north of the North Carolina state line. Woolwine’s vehicle initially struck another vehicle in the rear while traveling north, then Woolwine turned and fled the scene southbound when his vehicle ran off the right side of the road, struck a tree and overturned back into the roadway approximately one-tenth of a mile south of the original crash. Woolwine and his young son were injured in the crash, and the child later died at Wake Forest Baptist Trauma Center in Winston-Salem.
Woolwine admitted to drinking several alcoholic beverages and smoked marijuana in the hours leading to the crash.
Woolwine’s new defense attorney, Chip DeHart, opened a Sept. 22 proceeding in Carroll County, Virginia, Circuit Court by telling Judge Brett Geisler that his client would like to withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial. Commonwealth’s Attorney Nathan H. Lyons opposed the motion, noting the court had already found Woolwine guilty in May.
DeHart called Woolwine to the stand and asked his client if he felt he didn’t have adequate time to consider his plea.
“Yes,” Woolwine said. “Brandon Boyles came to see me at visitation in jail and told me this is the only thing they will offer me. He told me he would call the next day. I had 24 hours to decide on the rest of my life, whether I would plea or not.”
Under questioning by Lyons, however, Woolwine admitted he had heared all the evidence against him at the preliminary hearing and had 90 days between that hearing and the entering of his guilty plea.
“But he put me on the spot,” Woolwine said of Boyles. “The reason I took the plea was because I was told I’d be charged with DUI manslaughter on top of that.”
Woolwine stated he decided to try to withdraw his guilty plea in the case when he realized his first attorney “didn’t try to do anything other than to jump at the first thing they offered him. I realized I’d be better off to not have him. He did absolutely nothing for me.”
Lyons asked Woolwine if he felt he was coerced into making a guilty plea, even though he had signed documentation saying he was not coerced.
“It’s not like I felt like he was going to punch me in the face, but I was told if I didn’t sign, I’d be charged with another charge,” Woolwine said.
After hearing both sides, Judge Geisler said this was a tragic case in which a boy was killed. But he agreed with the Commonwealth’s position that a reasonable defense has to be offered in order to withdraw a guilty plea. He also agreed with Lyons that there was no surprise with regard to evidence Woolwine had seen from the time of the arrest and preliminary hearing. There were ample opportunities to go forward with a trial at the previous hearing, Geisler added, saying he believed Woolwine made all previous statements freely and with his own knowledge.
“This is a pretty straightforward case. The consequences are extreme because of what happened, the death of a child,” Geisler said. “I agree with the Commonwealth, there is no new reasonable defense or any surprise.”
Geisler then denied Woolwine’s request to withdraw his guilty plea and set a sentencing date for Oct. 20 at 1 p.m.
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN