Why prosecutors offer plea agreements
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Deena Aday was in serious legal trouble in 2017.
She had run off with a man who had killed his then-girlfriend, and she was being charged with being an accessory to a felony (also a felony).
But Bonneville County Prosecutor Danny Clark offered her a plea agreement, and she pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor, instead. Clark’s decision, which changed Aday’s sentencing from possibly five years in prison to probation, triggered public backlash. However, despite the controversy, Clark stands by the facts—both of the case and of the system.
“The criminal justice system is designed for defendants to plead guilty,” Clark said. “In some states that’s not the case, but in Idaho it is.”
A plea agreement is a deal, generally offered by the prosecutor’s office, that allows a defendant to plead guilty for some or all of the crimes that the defendant has been charged with.
Judge Dane Watkins of the 7th District Court has dealt with hundreds of plea agreements during his career, both as a judge and as the former Bonneville County prosecuting attorney.
“Plea agreements are necessary for the criminal justice system to function as we know it,” Watkins said. “It is both an efficient and effective way to resolve cases.”
In fact, in 2019, 90 percent of federal cases resolved through a plea agreement instead of a trial, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center. Of 22 states where data was available in 2017, nearly 97 percent of cases on average resolved through a plea agreement, the National Center for State Courts says.
Watkins said each plea agreement is customized to the specific case.
“(The plea agreement) is often written, and it either contains a significant number of provisions, binding obligations between the parties, or it has very little,” Watkins said. “You’ll see plea agreements that say, ‘I agree to plead guilty to this offense, if you dismiss this offense,’ with no specific terms at all. Other agreements are very specific and require the parties to do a number of things.”
Not all plea deals are the same, but no matter what the terms are, each party has its own objectives. For a defendant and the defendant’s attorney, the objective of a plea agreement is generally to ensure the best deal possible for the defendant. For the prosecution, the objective is to protect the best interest of the community, including the victim, both Watkins and Clark said.
Why are plea offers so common?
But why are plea offers so common? And why would a prosecutor ever agree to drop or reduce a charge against a defendant instead of taking the case to trial?
One of the primary reasons, Clark said, is justice.
“I’m allowed to ethically charge someone if there’s probable cause, but I cannot continue with the prosecution unless there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction,” Clark said. “There’s a big difference between probable cause and a reasonable likelihood of conviction.”
For example, in the Aday case, the probable cause that allowed Clark to charge her with aiding a murder suspect diminished as the investigation progressed. In the end, Clark said, the reasonable likelihood of conviction was not there.
“We had all sorts of flaws in that case because I couldn’t prove she knew what he (murder suspect Jeremy White) did while she was in Bonneville County,” Clark said. “To my knowledge, she found out about what he did while she was in Oregon. That’s not an Idaho crime.”
Therefore, in that case, Aday did not begin aiding a murder suspect until she was outside of Bonneville County, at which point Clark and his office lost jurisdiction. In addition to questionable jurisdiction, the case also provided Clark with an opportunity to obtain more information about White.
“She cooperated in helping us convict the guy (White) who did the murder, which is what I was focused on,” Clark said. “So that’s a scenario where we took a co-defendant and used their cooperation in order to ensure the murderer was brought to justice.”
“If I can accomplish what justice is on that case without causing any additional trauma to that victim, I will do it every time.”
Securing the conviction of a defendant, however, is not the only reason a plea agreement could be offered. Another common consideration is the well-being of the victim.
Under the Sixth Amendment, all defendants have the right to cross-examine witnesses against them. That means that if a case goes to trial, all victims, including children, must take the witness stand with the defendant in the room and explain the trauma they experienced in detail.
For instance, Clark outlined a hypothetical scenario in which a 5-year-old girl accuses her father of molesting her. If that case were to go to trial, Clark said, the 5-year-old would almost certainly have to testify in court, with her father and abuser sitting at a desk just several yards away.
“We have to factor in the likely outcome against the trauma that is caused by the system to that victim,” Clark said. “If I can accomplish what justice is on that case without causing any additional trauma to that victim, I will do it every time.”
Furthermore, a defendant who pleads guilty by definition admits to committing his or her crime. That can offer closure both to the victim and to the community.
“We like it when people get up and own their bad behavior,” Clark said. “It’s a good thing.”
Prosecutors also take case management and expediency into consideration when formulating plea agreements.
“If there were not (plea) agreements, 10 times the amount of resources would be expended to our justice system here locally because 95 percent of our cases are resolved by plea agreement,” Watkins said. “And again, it is only coming after the parties have negotiated the terms.”
The Bonneville County Prosecutor’s Office currently has 11 attorneys. In 2018, Clark said, they only had eight attorneys, and around 800 felonies were filed.
“You can do the math on that,” said Clark. “We’ve got 800 felonies between eight lawyers. Imagine an average three-day trial, 100 felonies per year, that would put someone in trial every day of the year.”
For Clark, the point is not avoiding taking a case to trial. It’s avoiding the expenditure of unnecessary resources on a case where a guilty plea would lead to the same result as a guilty verdict.
Clark used a recent case as an example.
“I had a guy charged with two potential life sentences, and I believe two sentences that were 10 years apiece,” Clark said. “He pled to a potential life sentence and to one count of a potential 10 years, and the other two were dismissed.”
Although the charges dropped may have been serious, the sentencing outcome would likely be no different than if the defendant had pleaded guilty to all four crimes. Two life sentences, after all, does not mean the defendant has two lives to serve in prison.
However, not everyone agrees that plea agreements are a just solution. Readers of EastIdahoNews.com often comment that plea agreements allow defendants off too easily, giving them a light sentence for a serious charge.
For example, EastIdahoNews.com recently published a story on the sentencing of Robert Saad, who had originally been charged with first-degree murder in the death of his son. But as part of a plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of manslaughter.
“I do not understand all these lesser plea deals,” one reader said in the Facebook comments.
“What the heck! He is a murder (sic). Took a child’s life. Should be in prison for life,” another reader said.
Each plea agreement is tailored specifically to the facts of an individual case, Watkins and Clark said. Prosecutors in the Saad case, for instance, said the plea agreement was offered because the investigation uncovered evidence that called into question whether Saad was wholly responsible for the victim’s injuries. In a trial, that evidence could have possibly led to a jury finding Saad not guilty, which would have stopped the state from pursuing any charges against him for the death of the victim, including manslaughter.
“I want the court to know this was not a charge reduction as a matter of leniency,” Bonneville County Deputy Prosecutor Tanner Crowther said during the trial. “This is a case that is as serious as it gets. This was a reduction that was based upon the proof that we had and what would have been elicited at trial.”
Regardless of what the plea agreement may be, or whether the public agrees with or fully understands the reasoning behind each individual offer, the prosecutor’s office ultimately dictates the charges against a defendant. The sentencing remains up to the judge.
“Most plea agreements are not binding on the court,” Watkins said. “There are rules that allow for a court to be bound for whatever the parties agree to … and that happens, but it’s not as common.”
Even in the case of a binding agreement, however, the judge has the right to reject it. In that instance, the defendant is entitled to withdraw the guilty plea, and the prosecutor and defense attorney can begin negotiations again with a blank slate.
In most cases, however, the prosecution and defense present the plea agreement to the judge, and each side makes their own sentencing recommendations to the court. The judge then deliberates, weighing four objectives of criminal punishment, and issues a ruling.
“Our community has excellent prosecutors, excellent defense attorneys that work hard on the case,” Watkins said. “They have a sense as to what judges may be doing with sentencings, so they’re approaching the court with an agreement that is most generally acceptable.”
Clark said the prosecution considers it a responsibility to deliver a fair agreement to the judge.
“What I always want to do is give the judge everything the judge needs in order to do what he or she thinks is just,” Clark said.
Regardless of how citizens feel about plea agreements now, Watkins left the public with an offer.
“I think if every citizen could come for an afternoon into one of our courtrooms and watch the interactions between the state and the defense bar, they would quickly see how this works, how it is an effective and efficient way,” Watkins said.
Clark said the one thing everyone should understand plea agreements is that the system is designed for them.
“The only bad thing about a plea agreement is a bad plea agreement,” Clark said. “I always say to victims that the criminal justice system will close chapters. You’ve got the crime, and then you’ve got the process. Throughout the process you’re closing chapters in this experience. When the defendant pleads guilty that closes a chapter. When a defendant is sentenced, that closes a chapter.”
Editor’s note: Story has been updated with correct original charge for Deena Aday.