In Oregon, a Clatsop County man was convicted of sexual abuse of a child in the first degree, bribing a witness and tampering with a witness. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, 60 of which would be served under alternative sanctions.
His case led to a discussion about plea agreements.
The Daily Astorian published a letter from a friend of the convicted man who pointed out that an innocent man was essentially forced to take the plea, and thereby prevented from defending himself against the charges.
I completely understand the horrendous nature of the accusations that were made against him, and the sensitivity that must be exercised in child abuse cases, but these were accusations that Mitchell was never given a fair chance to defend himself against. Any honest attempt to get at the truth of the matter would have involved interviewing the alleged criminal, investigating his background, and speaking with character witnesses. This never happened.I have no idea if the defendant was guilty or innocent but guilt and innocence too often have little to do with whether a defendant takes the offered plea agreement or not.
The Daily Astorian followed up by publishing a guest column written by Joshua Marquis, the Clatsop County district attorney, and Dawn Buzzard, the senior assistant district attorney, in response to the letter.
Marquis and Buzzard call the letter from the friend an "angry letter." It isn't. The friend sticks to the facts:
The district attorney’s office inflated the accusations at every opportunity, originally charging him with crimes that could have resulted in over 300 years of prison. Even after the most serious of the charges were dropped, they continued to use the blunt sledgehammer of a “choice” between the possibility of spending 180 years in prison with a trial, or taking a plea for 60 days of alternative sanctions.Yes. That is the way plea agreements work. The prosecutor holds all the cards. The choice is no choice at all.
For those of you who think that you would never plead to something you did not do, think again. The choice is stark: charges that could result in 180 years in prison or a plea agreement that guarantees you will do only 90 days. In a world where sex offenders only rarely win at trial, going to trial is not the opportunity to tell your side that Perry Mason led you to believe it was.
The fact that the district attorney was willing to settle for a couple months over the original 300 years speaks to the weakness of their case. [My emphasis.]This is a point beyond intriguing. I would call it telling. If prosecutors believed the original charges, why would they settle for such a light sentence? Oh, I know...they are all about sensitivity to the victim and not wanting to put her through hell. But if this guy is such a bad dude, why not go for, oh, I dunno...HALF of the 180 years, or even half of the 300? Dropping all the way down to 90 days tells us one of two things: 1. The prosecutors, if they believe he is dangerous enough to deserve 300 or 180 years, do not care at all about public safety, or 2. The prosecutors know all along that this guy is not dangerous.
The friend continues:
Not once was Mitchell given an opportunity in court to tell his side of the story.The district attorneys dispute that in their guest column.
Mr. Mitchell had every opportunity to “tell his side.” They are generally called trials.Here, the district attorneys could offer up the information about how the trial would have worked but they never had any plans to go to trial. When 97% of federal cases and 95% of state cases end in a plea agreement, why would they worry about a trial? When they can threaten the defendant with multiple charges that would result in a extremely long prison sentence, the defendant is certain to take the plea agreement because there is no other choice.
He had a right to remain silent in court, but now some of his supporters are trying his case in the court of public opinion and in that forum he’s chosen never to tell “his side.”This cannot be the only case where supporters try to throw light into the darkness but this is the one that the prosecutors decided to defend in the court of public opinion.
The prosecutors blather on about the defendant taking an Alford plea, trying to convince readers that the Alford plea is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill guilty plea.
The “Alford plea” comes from a 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case where a murder defendant claimed he only entered the guilty plea because of fear he might be convicted of something worse or receive a harsher sentence. The Supreme Court held that claiming you were “really innocent but still pleading guilty” meant … you were pleading guilty … period. More recently, in 2006 a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge held that an Alford guilty plea is a “variation of an ordinary guilty plea.” The only difference is that the defendant, who often has vehemently denied his guilt to friends and family can claim, “I didn’t do it, but they’ll convict me anyway.”When pleading guilty is the only way to get the 90 days instead of a sentence of half a dozen lifetimes, you plead guilty. Using an Alford plea is a way to grab the 90 days without admitting guilt. The prosecutors know this but they choose not to explain that. In some cases, using an Alford plea leaves some opportunity for appeal, where a plain old guilty plea may not. Plea agreements often explicitly exclude the possiblity of an appeal.
A defendant who vehemently denies his guilt to friends and family because he is innocent can still be railroaded into accepting a plea agreement because the threat of 300 or 180 years is a real threat when it is a sex offense case.
The existence of the sex offender registry has helped to expand the myth of dangerous sex offenders. If these criminals are so dangerous that they need to register, then they must be frightful indeed. With news media that loves a sensational story about sex offenders, the public from which a jury is drawn has been primed to convict.
The prosecutors know that. They have known all along that they can convict with very little work on their part. Point a finger at the defendant, call him a sex offender and, wow, you'd be surprised how dirty an ordinary man will look.
Almost as dirty as some prosecutors but then, we don't have a dirty prosecutor registry, do we?
NOTE: When you read the prosecutors' guest column, make sure not to miss the comments. Good stuff there.