Making deals part of the judicial process
About two months ago, former Assistant District Attorney Andrew Hughes approached a woman sitting in the courtroom gallery for an important discussion.
The woman’s husband was facing charges for assaulting her. Hughes was looking at the possibility that the woman wanted to recant her previous statement that led to the charges.
Hughes told the woman it would be a gamble if she testified and gave differing versions of the alleged assault to the jury. He said the jury may not believe her, which could result in a conviction and a lengthy prison sentence for her husband.
Hughes mentioned a plea agreement that would send the man to prison for no more than four years rather than rolling the dice on what a jury may or may not believe. He urged her to discuss this with her husband.
Recommended plea deals, like the one Hughes offered to the woman, are frequent in the 22nd Judicial District, statistics show.
In 2011 there were more than 1,000 crimes in the 22nd Judicial District, but only around 20 of them went to trial, said local attorney Will Furse, who will run unopposed for the DA’s seat in November.
In 2011 there were about 700 misdemeanors and 300 felonies. About 12 of the misdemeanors were decided by a jury, while less than 10 felonies went to trial.
Furse said there is no way a district attorney’s office can take every case to trial. Instead, the office must try to work out plea bargains with the vast majority of people who have committed crimes.
“Obviously, you can’t try 1,000 cases,” Furse said. “It is a necessary and ritual part of the judicial system.”
He said a plea bargain is simply an agreement between a defendant and a prosecutor where the defendant receives a lighter sentence for not contesting the crime.
The soon-to-be-DA said negotiating a plea agreement is a balancing act where the defendant still needs to be punished, adding that the judge has the right to disagree with the plea deal if he thinks the punishment is too lenient or too harsh.
A defendant who pleads guilty, in most cases cannot change the plea even if the court decides on a harsher sentence than what was recommended.
However, if the “bargain” provides little benefits to defendants they are likely to take their chances at trial.
Furse said one issue that the DA’s office must confront is that criminal defendants are entitled to a trial within six months, so that means plea bargains have to be done quickly.
The accused also must think or realize the offer is something that should not be passed up.
Hughes, who recently resigned his position to take a job overseas, remembered securing a 20-year prison sentence plea agreement with two men, telling them if they lost at trial the prison sentence would have likely exceeded 30 years.
Furse believes cases like that should not be pleaded down, especially when the prison sentences are 20 years or longer.
“If the prosecution believes that person is so dangerous, why not go to trial for the ultimate sentence?” He said. “Why settle for less than what the (statute) calls for?”
Furse also said the more serious and violent crimes should go to trial to obtain the maximum sentence possible, especially if there is enough evidence to get a conviction.
“Serious cases should be set for trial, and those defendants should be refused a plea bargain,” Furse said.
The more serious crimes in the 22nd Judicial District in the past have usually resulted in jury trials, since any pleas for crimes of this type would still result in long prison sentences.
One advantage of a plea bargain is a quick resolution to the matter that does not take time away from the families of the victim and the defendant.
Furse said he has had clients who have vehemently proclaimed their innocence but took a plea because they feared what the possible guilty sentence would bring.
A no-contest plea, also known as an Alford plea, is one where the defendant will not admit guilt, but agrees to plead guilty because the evidence is likely to result in a conviction if it went to trial.
Furse said one problem with an Alford plea is that the victim likely will never hear from the guilty party. That means the possibility of an apology in court will not happen.
“(Defendants) want to end the case with the same result,” he said but added judges treat a no-contest plea as a guilty one.
Plea bargains not only help the court move more efficiently and the DA’s office manage its case load but it aids the public as well, since fewer trials result in juries not being needed as much.
Furse added that one way for the public to see how criminal activity is being dealt with is for the public to observe prosecutors working in the courtroom. To watch the process as he or she tries to defend the community is a great way to see the judicial system at work.
Either way, Furse believes preparation and motivation are the keys to just plea bargains and trials, though the pleas should be fashioned on the severity of the crime and not for any other reason.