Defendants snubbing plea bargain deals

Observer senior reporter

Monday, October 23, 2017

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PROSECUTORS are concerned that plea bargaining legislation is underutilised as individuals accused of murder and other serious crimes have not been taking up the option, often due to poor advice from those behind bars.

Not only are defendants finding themselves facing the full brunt of penalties, which may have been reduced, but the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions says the resultant lengthy trials, in some instances, are clogging up the already overburdened court system.

The concern was raised last week at a sitting of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) of Parliament at Gordon House on the eve of sentence-reduction days in the Home Circuit Court, where some 15 individuals were expected to plead guilty to charges.

Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Sharon Millwood Moore told the PAAC that too many defendants are insisting on staying the course of a trial in instances where it is almost inevitable that there will be a guilty verdict based on the evidence.

“Nothing short of a massive culture shift is going to give us the desired results when it comes to full acceptance of plea negotiations and really getting into the mind of defendants, and counsel too — but especially the defendants — that it is OK to enter pleas of guilty. The notion is that you can take a chance and, as it is often said in unforensic language, you can 'buss' the case. Even at times when we have had intense negotiations, and it is well accepted that what is proposed is acceptable, [and] notwithstanding sound advice from defence counsel, you have a number of attorneys that come back to say the defendant insists that they are going to trial,” she told the committee.

Millwood Moore highlighted a recent experience in the Home Circuit Court in which, after weeks of dialogue with senior defence counsel over plea negotiations, the defendant refused to plead. “Despite all the time, and counsel speaking with this defendant for at least four different court dates when the matter was adjourned — we even empanelled a jury — none of those moved this young man. He insisted on the trial and, of course, when the guilty verdict to murder came, he then turned and was asking his lawyer, 'Me can still get the manslaughter?'”

She pointed out that these individuals are often taking poor advice from others outside of the justice system.

“Very often, outside of the sound advice of their defence lawyers to plead guilty, these persons are insistent, because their cohorts on the inside say 'No, don't take any plea,' and at the end of the day the result is what it is,” she remarked.

The deputy DPP emphasised the need for a major public education campaign, targeting defendants, to make them aware of the sentencing-reduction options provided for with a guilty plea.

At the same time, she noted that there has been increasing cooperation from defence attorneys in plea negotiations.

“We have been experiencing great sincerity [and] a greater level of cooperation from the defence bar in terms of using the different legislative strategies to have some of these matters removed from the list without the need to go the full distance of a trial,” she said.

Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Justice Carol Palmer said that a public education forum is scheduled for November 2 at St George's College, and that billboards are to be mounted and posters disseminated pushing the message, 'Plead, don't gamble.' A judges' forum was also scheduled for this weekend to examine the legislation.

Amendments were made to the Plea Negotiations and Agreement Act in the Upper House in June to make it fairer to prosecutors. The legislation was amended from the 2010 revision because it was felt that it was biased towards defendants, as there were no sanctions if a plea bargain was entered and the defence reneged on the deal. The Bill allows individuals accused of crimes to plead guilty and receive a reduced penalty in exchange for testimony or information which assists the State.




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