The Role of Victims in Plea Bargaining

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On Dec. 3, 2008, Laura Garza, a 25-year-old aspiring dancer, left a Manhattan night club with Michael Mele, a 26-year-old registered sex offender, and disappeared.

In April 2010, a group of ATV riders found her body in Scranton, PA.

The police eventually arrested Mele and charged him with Garza’s murder. In January 2012, with the jury selected and the trial about to begin, the prosecution and defense agreed to a plea deal in which Mele pleaded guilty to manslaughter and evidence
tampering in exchange for a 23-year prison sentence.

This unexpected resolution of the case on the eve of trial came as quite a shock to Garza’s family. Ivan Garza, Laura’s brother, told reporters that the family was unhappy with the terms of the plea deal and thought the 23-year sentence was too short.

“It’s not justice,” he said.

Through a translator, Garza’s mother said that she worried Mele would get out of jail before the 23 year sentence was up. The family plans to address the judge about their concerns when he sentences Mele today ( March 6).

So what role, if any, should the victims of crime or their families have in plea bargaining?

The goal of plea bargaining is to resolve a case quickly, while still imposing an appropriate punishment on the defendant. Plea bargaining may not be perfect, but it’s a necessary evil: it keeps the criminal justice system from getting bogged down; and it saves the state money.

When considering plea bargaining, it’s important to remember the prosecution’s role.

Unlike a defense attorney, who only represents the defendant’s interests, the prosecutor represents the state and must do what’s in the best interests of the general public—not just the victim.

In many cases, the interests of the victim or his/her family mirror the state’s interests. But in other cases, those interests will diverge.

For example, the family of a murder victim may understandably seek revenge in the form of the stiffest sentence possible, such as the death penalty. However, the prosecutor may opt to resolve the case expeditiously with, say, a life sentence.

The fact that prosecutors represent the state doesn’t necessarily mean they can do whatever they want with a case and ignore the victim or his/her family. In fact, many states give crime victims specific legal rights, typically including the right to give a
victim impact statement at a defendant’s sentencing.

Some states go further.

For example, in New York, the victims of certain felonies have the right to, among other things, be consulted as to their view of the disposition of the case by dismissal, guilty plea or trial. And the court is required to consider the views of the victim or his/her family on discretionary decisions, such as the acceptance of a plea agreement.

That said, it’s true that the prosecution doesn’t always honor victims’ rights.

An article in the Houston Press suggests that, at least in one county in Texas, prosecutors are running roughshod over victims’ rights.

The article quotes Susan Howley, director of public policy at the National Center for Victims of Crime, as recommending safeguards such as requiring the judge to ask prosecutors whether the victim has been informed of a pending plea, or asking a victim to sign a form acknowledging that he/she has been informed of a plea deal.

Professor Michael O’Hear of Marquette University Law School advocates plea bargaining guidelines for prosecutors as a means to better protect victims’ rights.

Basically, the guidelines would specify standard plea deals for commonly recurring types
of cases.

The prosecutor would consult with the victim about the standard plea deal, and solicit any information that would support deviating from this deal. If the defendant accepts a plea agreement that differs from the one sought by the victim, the prosecutor would have to briefly summarize the victim’s position for the court and explain why it wasn’t accepted.

However, for some victims’ rights advocates, consultation isn’t enough. They want victims to have the right to veto a proposed plea deal.

Veto power goes too far. I agree that victims should be consulted as to plea bargains in a meaningful way. And if a victim objects to a plea deal, the court should be aware of these objections before it accepts the plea.

However, as explained above, a crime victim isn’t the only one with an interest in the outcome of a criminal case.

The state also has interests. Ultimately those interests must trump the victim’s.

Giving victims the power to stop a reasonable plea deal would put private interests ahead of public ones. A case that can and should be resolved with a guilty plea shouldn’t be forced to go to trial simply because the victim wants his day in court.

The Garza family justifiably felt ambushed when the 11th hour plea agreement was entered. And that’s unacceptable. The prosecutor should have discussed it with them first. No court would have denied the prosecution a brief adjournment to do so.

Of course, if the family objected, the prosecution should’ve still been permitted to go ahead with the plea.

But if they’d been consulted first, perhaps they wouldn’t have felt so betrayed by the system.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district
attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime
Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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