SAN FRANCISCO - A federal appeals court in San Francisco Wednesday overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial for a former East Bay professor who had pleaded guilty to sexually abusing an infant in Missouri in 2009.
A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the trial judge in the case of Kenneth Kyle, 49, improperly intruded on plea negotiations by saying he would sentence Kyle to life in prison if Kyle went to trial and was convicted of all charges pending against him.
The panel said the statement by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White of San Francisco prejudiced Kyle's right to a fair trial by influencing him to accept a plea bargain last year in which he pleaded guilty to one count and was sentenced to 37 and one-half years in prison.
Kyle, a San Francisco resident, was formerly an assistant professor of public affairs and administration at California State University, East Bay.
He was arrested in 2010 after an FBI investigation that began in 2009 found that he was exchanging pictures of child pornography in an Internet file-sharing network.
Images and text messages found on Kyle's computers and cell phone led to the investigation and arrest of a Missouri woman, Tessa Vanvlerah, now 23, whose infant daughter was allegedly molested by both Kyle and Vanvlerah.
Kyle was indicted on one count of crossing state lines for purposes of aggravated sexual abuse and four counts of producing, possessing, distributing and transporting child pornography.
The indictment alleged the abuse took place between August and October 2009. Prosecutors said it began when the victim was five months old.
Kyle agreed in 2011 to plead guilty to the abuse charge and receive a 30-year sentence, but White rejected the penalty as being too lenient and allowed Kyle to withdraw the plea.
At a hearing in February 2012, the judge said Kyle's alleged actions were "among the most serious conduct" he had ever seen in a case, and said, "I'm prepared to give a life sentence" if Kyle went to trial and was convicted of all charges.
In a second plea bargain a few days later, Kyle again pleaded guilty to the abuse charge and was sentenced by White in March 2012 to 37 years and six months in prison. Prosecutors dropped the pornography counts.
"The district judge's remarks emphasized to Kyle that his only chance to escape a life sentence would be to accept a plea agreement for a substantially longer sentence" than the earlier 30-year proposal, the appeals court said.
The panel set aside the guilty plea, sent the case back to U.S. District Court in San Francisco and ordered that a new trial judge be assigned.
The ruling reinstates all five charges against Kyle, who could either go to trial or try to obtain a new plea bargain.
Ethan Balogh, a lawyer for Kyle in the appeal, declined to comment on the case.
Vanvlerah, who lived in Ballwin, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, pleaded in Missouri last year to three counts of rape, sodomy and incest and was sentenced to two consecutive 30-year terms, according to St. Louis County Circuit Court records.
The child was removed from Vanvlerah's custody and put in the care of a foster mother who later adopted her.