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Man who murdered Berrien County Army sergeant in 2018 requests to withdraw guilty plea

Published: Aug. 26, 2020 at 6:13 PM EDT
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BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. (WNDU) - More than one year after pleading guilty to the murder of Berrien County Army Sgt. Tyrone Hassel III, Jeremy Cuellar walked his confession all the way back to the courtroom on Wednesday, requesting the court to withdraw his guilty plea.

Cuellar claims his former trial attorney, Edwin Johnson, coerced him in to taking a guilty plea that carried a 65-year sentence. But after 16 News Now spoke with Tyrone Hassel Jr., the victim’s father, Hassel Jr. says that simply is not true.

“He told me how many times he tried to kill my son. He told me the relationship that he had with my son’s wife,” Hassel Jr. explains.

It was a relationship that led to Hassel’s killing on News Years Eve in 2018, a murder that Cuellar confessed to while in prison to Hassel Jr.

“He cried, the man was in tears. It did feel like he was sincere,” Hassel Jr. says.

But on Wednesday, Cuellar did not deny his confession. Rather, he says Johnson pressured him into pleading guilty, saying he would have no chance in court, and that if he did not take the deal, he could be put on death row.

However, the outlining problem with that statement...Michigan currently does not have a death penalty.

“The plea had came up, and immediately, he was just like, ‘I really don’t see no chance. I really don’t see no chance.’ He was saying that. He just made me feel like I had to take that plea,” Cuellar said, while appearing in court via video.

On the other hand, after testifying in court Wednesday, Johnson told a different story.

“At any point in time in your representation that you believed that it was in Mr. Cuellar best interest to plead guilty in this case?” Purgatory Attorney John Zelvalking asked Johnson.

“Absolutely not.” Johnson answered. “I was prepared to go to trial and Mr. Cuellar was well aware of that. I was ultimately shocked that Mr. Cuellar said, not only did he want to take the plea, but he didn’t want to plea no contest. He wanted to plea guilty because God was informing him to make it right with the family and that’s what he wanted to do,” Johnson says.

Johnson also says Cuellar wanted to make it right with Hassel’s father too, something Cuellar didn’t deny in court.

“If they want to withdraw his plea and he feels like he didn’t get a fair trial and he wants a fair trial, with the amount of information he told me, I’m confident it can only get worse for him,” Hassel Jr. says.

Once a transcript is finalized from Wednesday’s hearing, a ruling on whether or not Cuellar’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea can be decided, but a judge says that could be months away.

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