Senior Nebraska District Judge Richard Kopf deconstructed an opinion by Southern District of West Virginia Judge Joseph Goodwin rejecting a plea agreement.
Greatly condensed and summarized, the judge recounted: (1) Walker’s stunning criminal history (although I think it likely because of the age of many of the prior convictions, and the maximum score limitation for certain relatively minor crimes, that Walker’s criminal history score was IV); (2) the fact that Walker warned his customers that other customers of his had overdosed; (3) the fact that the use of heroin and other opiates had risen to epidemic levels in West Virginia with the concomitant reality of a mounting death toll; (4) the fact that federal judges are not overworked so plea bargains are not necessary for the sake of judges; (5) that there is an inverse relationship between the increased number of federal prosecutors and each individual prosecutor’s caseload, thus suggesting that federal prosecutors do not need to plea bargain to handle their docket; (6) that the resolution of criminal charges by plea bargaining has replaced resolution by jury trial and that criminal jury trials in West Virginia (and throughout the nation) are few and far between; and (7) that jury trials provide an important public educational function.
Much of Judge Goodwin’s rationale deals with the quirks of the specific case, meaning that he just really hated the plea in this instance and thought it inappropriate. But the last two points are different. They are systemic issues, and as such, extend beyond the one plea agreement at issue to the broader question of whether pleas should be permitted at all, and who the court should be looking at when deciding whether to approve an agreement.
The first point is one often raised, that guilty pleas have replaced jury trials as the primary means of resolving indictments. This issue has been beaten to death, whether as the trial tax or the plea discount.
While there are perhaps some systematic concerns to plea bargaining, in all cases (save actual innocence) individual defendants are usually better off pleading than facing the statutory maximum. The only way guilty defendants would come out better is if they risk trial and wrongly get acquitted. So, it’s baffling that many folks who think the result of the criminal justice system is too harsh on defendants argue for eliminating the best method for ameliorating that harshness.
Regardless of which spin you prefer, Andrew King is right. There is no glory in going to trial, losing, and suffering an astoundingly more severe sentence than offered by the plea. In the future, it will be even more difficult, as young lawyers will never gain the experience needed to be good trial lawyers because there will be too few trials. The skills will be lost and pleas, at the mercy of the prosecution will be the only alternative.
Perhaps Judge Goodwin recognizes this future and wants to do his part to prevent it.. But burning plea agreements down in any individual case isn’t the solution. Unlike Judge Kopf, who isn’t entirely sure that jury trials are the panacea of accuracy we want them to be, they remain one of the few checks on the power of the prosecution. Even when not used, the threat of a trial loss remains in the back of a prosecutor’s head as he formulates his plea offer. If he knows he’s up against a n00b who can’t try a case, there is nothing to stop him from ramming a bad plea down a defendant’s throat except his conscience.
But how does this systemic problem become this specific defendant’s downfall? Had Judge Goodwin written a cool law review article on the subject of the death of jury trials, that would be great. But Charles York Walker Jr. is not the martyr for the legal system. Don’t reject his plea deal because the system sucks.
If this prong of the rationale was problematic, Judge Goodwin’s final point goes down an even more disturbing path.
I conclude that courts should reject a plea agreement upon finding that the plea agreement is not in the public interest. There is no justice in bargaining against the people’s interest.
First, a court should consider the cultural context surrounding the subject criminal conduct. Here, that cultural context is a rural state deeply wounded by and suffering from a plague of heroin and opioid addiction.
Second, the court should weigh the public’s interest in participating in the adjudication of the criminal conduct charged by the indictment…Jury trials serve the people’s right to be informed as to what occurs in their courts and reinforce the fact that the law comes from the people. Here, the public has a high interest in the adjudication of heroin and opioid crimes such as these because of the severity of the crisis occurring in our state. Education about and deterrence of heroin and opioid crimes is of paramount importance at this time.
Third, the court should consider whether “community catharsis can occur” without the transparency of a public jury trial. “Much like the lid of a tea kettle releases steam, jury trials in criminal cases allow peaceful expression of community outrage at arbitrary government or vicious criminal acts.”
Judge Goodwin’s solicitousness to cultural context and the public catharsis will warm the hearts of many, but lacks any basis in legal doctrine and seems to introduce a fourth table in the well (after victims’ rights advocates get their table next to the prosecution’s). The public is represented in criminal prosecutions, which is why we pay prosecutors. The public is entitled to hang out in the courtroom and watch to their heart’s content, with certain limitations.
But that’s as far as it goes, or should go. Much as Judge Goodwin indulges in a cool tea kettle analogy, he’s running a courtroom, not a public soup kitchen. It’s not his job to pander to popular approval or whatever the trendy “cultural context” may be when exercising the authority of his office. Would he favor a twitter poll to see whether the “public” wants him to take a plea or force a trial?
The system struggles trying to maintain a relative balance between prosecution and defense already, and plea agreements provide a needed safety valve as well as a deeply coercive weapon to force the innocent, or the less-than-as-guilty-as-the-prosecution-says, to cop out. But tempering the sides’ ability to reach an agreement with some judge’s vague sense of public feelz goes completely off the rails.