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Former deputy backtracks on guilty pleas to two rapes

In 1995, a jury convicted former Pasco sheriff's deputy Phillip Armstrong of raping a woman he should have arrested for drunken driving. After a judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison, Armstrong decided to plead guilty to charges that he raped two other women he had pulled over. A judge added another 3{ years to the sentence.

Now, Armstrong says he wants to withdraw that plea.

Why? Armstrong, 37, says things haven't exactly turned out as he planned. More specifically, Armstrong said Thursday, he thought he'd be home by now instead of facing another two years in Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach.

The only reason he pleaded to the two other rapes, Armstrong testified Thursday, was because his lawyer at the time "said with all the gain time . . . you'll probably do less than half" of the sentence. To Armstrong, that meant "I'll be home in six years."

He has been in prison for nearly seven years. In fact, according to the state Department of Corrections, Armstrong already has completed the 10-year sentence he received on the rape case that went to trial.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal ordered Thursday's hearing to determine whether Armstrong received bad advice from his defense attorney, Bob Focht, before pleading guilty to the other two rapes. Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge William Webb took the matter under advisement after the hearing, saying he wanted to review the court record before issuing his ruling.

Focht testified Thursday that he couldn't remember what advice he gave Armstrong. He said he might have mentioned the possibility that Armstrong would be eligible for the prison system's "gain time" program, which qualifies certain prisoners for early release. But Focht said he never promised Armstrong anything.

If the judge finds Focht was ineffective, Armstrong's pleas would be voided. That would put the cases back on a trial docket. If convicted, Armstrong could face an even longer prison sentence. His appellate attorney, Serbo Simeoni, said Armstrong is willing to roll the dice.

Armstrong said he learned he wouldn't be eligible for early release on his first day in prison in 1995. It was then, he said, that a prison guard told him that inmates convicted of sexual battery were not eligible for the state's "gain time" program.

In fact, a state prosecutor said Thursday, Armstrong has indeed been the beneficiary of "gain time," explaining why the former deputy is scheduled to be released in 2004, after serving less than 10 years. The "gain time" program was designed to ease prison overcrowding. Under the program, which is now defunct, inmates earned a certain number of days off their sentences for every month they served.

On June 11, 1994, Armstrong pulled over a 27-year-old woman on suspicion of drunken driving. She failed sobriety tests, but Armstrong did not arrest her. Instead, he took her back to the woman's New Port Richey apartment and told her that she couldn't afford a DUI charge. Then he forced himself on her. Armstrong, who joined the Sheriff's Office in 1990 and later became a DUI specialist, has repeatedly denied raping the woman.

The victims in the other two cases came forward to accuse Armstrong after his arrest drew a great deal of media attention.

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