“No one was more surprised in that courtroom than me.”
Not typical words coming from a defense attorney, moments after one of his client’s cases ended.
Just before potential jurors were set to enter the courtroom, a Riverhead taxi driver — 29-year-old Howard Ferebee Jr. — accused of being the getaway man in a Horton Avenue burglary last year, pleaded guilty to a lower charge Thursday afternoon in a bizarre court appearance that lasted nearly 20 minutes as the defendant peppered the judge and his attorney with questions.
Brian Hughes, Mr. Ferebee’s court-appointed attorney, said it was a turn of events he didn’t see coming.
“I was taken aback,” Mr. Hughes said outside the courtroom of his client’s sudden decision to take the deal.
The taxi driver is now set to be released on the time he served in county jail since his arrest.
Mr. Ferebee seemed prepared to go to trial when he was led into the Suffolk County courtroom before Judge John Toomey about 2:30 p.m.
He had been arrested on April 21, 2013 after he drove 20-year-old Tremel Kelly to a house on Horton Avenue about 4 a.m. Mr. Kelly kicked down the door into the home and stole a television after fighting with a resident inside. Mr. Kelly brought the TV back to Mr. Ferebee’s taxi and the two drove off, police said.
Mr. Kelly pleaded guilty to his charges as part of a deal and will be sentenced to five years in jail, prosecutors said.
Mr. Ferebee was indicted after the incident on two counts of felony robbery, one count of felony burglary and three misdemeanors for possession of stolen goods, criminal mischief and criminal facilitation.
But as jury screening was ready to start Thursday afternoon, Mr. Ferebee announced that he was ready to “go home,” and would take a plea deal first offered late last year.
“I thought we were going to trial,” Mr. Hughes said afterwards. “We were ready to pick a jury.”
Mr. Ferebee began debating with Mr. Hughes over the specific terms of the deal as assistant district attorney Shaun McCready explained the details of the plea: Mr. Ferebee would plead guilty to the criminal facilitation charge and be sentenced to the time he already served in jail while he had been awaiting trial.
Mr. Ferebee began asking about his probation sentence (there was none, Mr. McCready told him) and whether he’d be able to appeal his sentence.
The defendant next requested that the judge lift a $250 court surcharge, claiming he would be unable to pay it as he was unemployed. Judge Toomey said he was bound by law to issue the surcharge, and would not lift the fine.
“Why not?” Mr. Ferebee demanded.
“Why not? I can’t do it!” the judge exclaimed. Mr. Ferebee continued to talk as his defense attorney begged him to “please be quiet, please be quiet.”
Eventually Mr. Ferebee said he would plead guilty as part of the deal, but proceedings caught a snag after Mr. Ferebee stumbled over the judge’s question of whether he was taking the deal of his own free will.
“No,” Mr. Ferebee said. “If I don’t, I’m getting 10 years.” Eventually he said he was willingly pleading guilty.
He later claimed he had no knowledge of the crime, but agreed that it was “probable” that a crime was being committed when he drove Mr. Kelly away.
“Can I go home yet?” Mr. Ferebee asked.
“You’re close,” the judge replied.
After intently reading a waiver of his right to appeal his guilty plea and sentence — while the judge put his head in his hands — Mr. Ferebee pleaded guilty.
“I’m an innocent man, and I copped out,” he proclaimed as he was led from the courtroom by court officers to be freed; he appeared to wink at the prosecutor as he left.
He will be released within the next day, court officials said. Mr. McCready declined to comment on why Mr. Ferebee was offered the deal.