More than 90 percent of court cases end in plea agreements — here’s how they work in Weld County
July 13, 2017
In crafting plea agreements, Weld District Attorney Michael Rourke said prosecutors generally try to treat similarly-situated defendants in a similar way. Often, he said, during negotiations defense attorneys cite past plea agreements prosecutors made.
“There’s an obligation to remain consistent over time,” he said.
During her arguments at Michael Vassil's July 3 sentencing, prosecutor Jerrica Phillips said she didn't believe the case's plea agreement was fair.
He'd pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was one of seven people to be arrested during an investigation into the 2015 stabbing death of Tera Lewandowski in Pierce. In the next year and a half, prosecutors repeatedly said the killing was one of the most pointless homicides they'd ever seen. Prosecutors believe Vassil was one of the key architects in the plot to kill her. Phillips was fresh off a six-day trial for Daniel Meyer, one of the case's co-defendants, who received life in prison for the crime. From a moral standpoint, she said, Vassil deserved the same.
But she didn't ask the judge to sentence him to life in prison. She asked for 60 years. She had a plea agreement to honor.
Plea bargains are by far the most common way cases are settled in courts across the country. Most research claims anywhere between 95 percent to 97 percent of criminal cases in America never go to trial. Instead, they are hashed out between prosecutors, defense attorneys and defendants. It's a process in which a defendant agrees to plead guilty to a less serious charge in exchange for the prosecutor agreeing to ask for a lighter sentence from a judge. This isn't Hollywood's version of criminal justice, with its courtroom drama and astonished juries. It is a realistic answer for a busy court system.
Weld District Attorney Michael Rourke said by state law, prosecutors have to bring a case to trial within six months from the time a person pleads not guilty. This past year, Weld's 28 prosecutors handled 2,645 felony cases in Weld District Court.
"To take each of those cases to trial, we would need 25 more courtrooms and 125 more prosecutors," he said.
Prosecutors work with victims in crafting a plea agreement, Rourke said, and they do their best to explain the process so victims are well-represented. But, he said, his office still receives criticism from people who believe a plea bargain means a guilty person is getting a slap on the wrist. Critics sometimes take to the office's Facebook page and complain about prosecutors dropping charges in a case or about the length of a sentence a defendant received.
"There's the impression that we just come up with these numbers out of thin air," he said.
That's not true. Prosecutors take into account how a jury would have reacted to a case had it gone to trial, and how likely a judge would be to approve a given agreement.
Luke Hunt, a former law clerk to a U.S. District Court judge and current assistant professor at Radford University in Virginia, said he has concerns about plea bargaining, but not because he thinks guilty people are receiving light sentences.
"I'm not saying all plea bargains are bad and should be done away with," he said. "(But) it's a very one-sided arrangement where one party has almost complete control. The negotiation can be quite unfair."
A person has the right to refuse a plea deal and insist on a trial. But, Hunt said, sometimes that right exists more on paper than in reality. Often, a defendant might feel they have no choice but to accept a deal, even if it means prison time.
"There's the façade that this is a free, equal negotiation," he said. "But there are levels of consent, meaning that some consent might be deficient on both procedural and substantive grounds."
Plea negotiations are private and, at least in Weld District Court, are usually accepted by judges. Rourke said he remembers only two instances in his career in which a judge refused to honor a bargain. That's another thing Hunt worries about.
"A lot of this is happening behind closed doors," Hunt said.
Rourke disagreed and pointed out nothing in the Constitution requires prosecutors to offer a plea deal. Sometimes they don't. He said the offer is a positive chance for a defendant to plead to a lesser charge.
Hunt also advocated for innovation in criminal procedure. He said the field might be more level if judges were involved in the negotiation process.
"If there was a way to create rules of criminal procedure so there'd be more oversight (that might help)," he said.
But Rourke said that would defeat the purpose. To have a judge involved in plea negotiations would be unfair, he said, and it might bias their decision. A judge's job, he said, is to make a finding about whether to approve a plea agreement crafted by attorneys.
"Our job is to determine what is a fair and appropriate resolution to a case under the individual circumstances," he said.