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October 15, 2011

"Killer's plea deal outrages family" ... because of lack of DP in NJ?

The title of this post is part of the headline of this local article out of New Jersey, along with my follow-up question and concern.  First, here are excerpts from the article:

A 25-year-old Camden gang leader who sanctioned the grisly killings of a Burlington County couple last year was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the crime Friday, despite outrage from a victim’s family.

Muriah Huff’s uncle, grandmother and cousins asked Superior Court Judge Irvin Snyder to reject the plea deal for Kuasheim “Presto” Powell offered by the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office in favor of a jury trial and potential life sentence. “Justice was not served. The system is broken,” said Earl Huff, uncle of 18-year-old Muriah.

In accordance with the deal, Snyder sentenced Powell to a pair of 30-year sentences for pleading guilty to the murders of Huff and Michael Hawkins, as well as two 20-year sentences for his guilty plea in the shooting of two Pennsauken brothers in a separate incident. Powell will serve the sentences concurrently, meaning he could be released when he is in his 50s. He must serve a minimum of 30 years, including time served of 19 months.

Camden County Assistant Prosecutor Mary Alison Albright said by agreeing to a deal, her office ensured Powell would spend time in prison rather than taking a chance he would be found not guilty. “With a guilty plea, we control the outcome,” Albright said. As part of the plea, Powell is committed to testifying against any co-defendants who go to trial.

Authorities said Huff, of Cinnaminson, and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Michael Hawkins, of Mount Holly, were tortured over a period of hours by young Bloods members in a row home on the 500 block of Berkley Street in Camden.

Powell, the admitted leader, ultimately ordered the pair be killed. He shot Hawkins six times in the head. Huff was beaten with a chair, choked with a rope, stabbed and suffocated. Authorities said Hawkins was killed as part of a gang dispute. Huff was killed simply to cover up Hawkins’ death....

[T]he family’s frustration boiled over Friday at the thought that Powell could walk free some day. “He shouldn’t have the opportunity to get out and enjoy a life after prison,” Huff’s cousin, Natasha Huff, told Snyder during the hearing.

“For him to be able to sit here and play let’s make a deal … something is wrong with the system,” Earl Huff added later. Shortly before handing down the sentence Snyder said, “The family is right. Thirty years doesn’t cut it.”...

Powell was the oldest of the gang members charged, and as such, admitted during his guilty plea the others looked to him during the killings. While he laughed and smiled while talking with his attorney before the hearing, Powell later told Snyder he was sorry for the crimes and that jail has changed him.

Powell said he has no explanation for his past actions, which he said he has replayed in his mind during his time in prison. When Powell pleaded guilty in August to his role in the Feb. 22 killings of Huff and Hawkins, he also admitted shooting two brothers in Pennsauken the day before. “If I could go back in time, I would change things,” he said.

Snyder dismissed Powell’s apology as continued manipulation. “I don’t believe anything you are saying about how you feel,” he said before handing down the sentence.

As suggested in the title of this post, I fear that this (seemingly too) lenient plea deal for a multiple murderer is a direct result of New Jersey's decision to abolish the death penalty in the state.  In states with the death penalty, plea deals for these kinds of horrific crimes will often involve prosecutors taking death off the table in exchange for a plea that carries a life with parole or an LWOP sentence.  But in NJ now, LWOP is the longest possible sentence that can be threatened even after a full trial, so state prosecutors have to offer something less to get even a mass murderer to be willing to give up his right to roll the dice at trial.

Regular readers know that I consider the impact on plea practices to be a unique and potentially potent argument in favor of the death penalty, though one not ever discussed sufficiently.  This New Jersey case serves as another prime example of how the abolition of the death penalty may permit a distinct kind of sentencing injustice.

October 15, 2011 at 10:38 AM | Permalink

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Comments

"Mary Alison Albright"

The prosecutor is likely to be a ...?

The victim's race is likely to be ...?

Correct on both counts.

Feminism is to 2011 what the KKK was to 1911. Only 100 times more effective at eradicating black males. This sentencing endorses their gruesome killings with a slap on the wrist.

What should happen is the water boarding of the defendant until he reveals all of his murder victims. Then he should be shot in the head in the basement of the court, his organs harvested if free of chronic diseases. To deter (the defendant).

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 15, 2011 11:02:51 AM

The article says "a minimum of 30 years". Does this mean he becomes eligible for parole at that time, or that he must be released?
I do not accept any linkage between this outcome and the abolition of the death penalty in the state. In my judgment, after 30 years, the issue of future dangerousness comes into play. If that is reasonably assessed to be significant in this case at that time, then further detention could be warranted. The weakness here is the system of justice that barters life, effort and cost thereby circumventing what should be a fair trial. In essence you get what you pay for --- the practice of plea bargaining in any scenario endangers justice full stop. The guilty may get, apparently, unwarranted leniency, while the innocent may be trapped into a punishment that is wrongful. Once again it is the prosecutors who are king, rather than the judges and juries who should have that power and responsibility. Having said that, in this case the prosecutor does have an unusual burden of responsibility in that there are multiple accused fro the crime. It is not unreasonable that an assessment be made that it is in the interests of overall justice, that all those responsible be convicted .... and this choice may be the best strategy to achieve that.

Posted by: peter | Oct 15, 2011 12:52:42 PM

"While he laughed and smiled while talking with his attorney before the hearing, Powell later told Snyder he was sorry for the crimes and that jail has changed him."

Laughing and smiling. Far out.

"Powell said he has no explanation for his past actions, which he said he has replayed in his mind during his time in prison."

Well if he doesn't have an explanation for his "actions," I do. He's a brutal, sadistic thug.

"When Powell pleaded guilty in August to his role in the Feb. 22 killings of Huff and Hawkins, he also admitted shooting two brothers in Pennsauken the day before."

Hey, look, kill two, kill four, c'mon, what the heck. Kill 44 for that matter! The real problem, as peter aptly notes, is not this guy's behavior, it's that "the prosecutors are king."

If I were back in the USAO, any prosecutor who accepted a deal like this would be out on the street that afternoon.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 15, 2011 1:40:29 PM

"Camden County Assistant Prosecutor Mary Alison Albright said by agreeing to a deal, her office ensured Powell would spend time in prison rather than taking a chance he would be found not guilty. “With a guilty plea, we control the outcome,” Albright said. As part of the plea, Powell is committed to testifying against any co-defendants who go to trial."

Meanwhile, on the second page of the article -

"Five of the 10 people charged in the Berkley Street killings have pleaded guilty."

She had nine potential witnesses, four of them have already pleaded guilty, and she cut a deal with the ringleader? Who also happens to be one of the principal offenders? You have got to be kidding me.

Posted by: The Death Penalty Sucks. | Oct 15, 2011 2:32:35 PM

think if that was my family he killed. i'd be hopping either for a death sentence or a SHORT sentence....so i could handle the death part myself!

when he got the 30...i'd be walking over and telling him...I'LL BE WAITING for you!

Posted by: rodsmith | Oct 15, 2011 8:15:19 PM

After N.J. put its death penalty back on the books in the early 1980's it managed to actually carry out exactly zero executions until formal abolition occurred a few years ago. The state appellate courts knocked out some astonishingly high percentage of jury death verdicts on direct appeal, applying a Rose-Bird-like standard of review. I'm not sure how much practical plea-bargaining leverage such a notoriously toothless statute gave prosecutors. If I were an N.J. legislator, I could see the argument for not trying to put the penalty back on the books unless and until the judicial culture of the state had been changed in a way that would make it effective in practice.

Posted by: JWB | Oct 16, 2011 9:17:20 AM

Confess or else ...

Posted by: Dott. claudio giusti, italia | Oct 16, 2011 12:29:27 PM

claudio --

Please provide any evidence you have that this confession was either coerced or false.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 16, 2011 5:19:13 PM

Mr. Otis, Seriously?

First of all, you are the utmost in Monday-morning quarterbacks. You basically second-guess people that actually have to deal with real cases: warts and all. I don’t mean this as an insult, since you are not actually practicing real law (the kind with witnesses, “interest” of parties, and ever-changing precedent) and you are second-guessing those that do. And, I am not saying that what you do is bad: after all, if we didn’t have people thinking about policy, I suspect we would be worse off. Again, there is nothing wrong with this: it is your right as an American, and since you purport to have some experience, your insights might be helpful. But you need to do more than just say “I would have done it differently.” You need to explain WHY you would have done it differently.
Now, why would you have done it differently? Hard to say. You don’t know much about the strengths and weaknesses of the case were. There might have been a lot of inadmissible evidence. Some witnesses stories might not have made sense. And there might have been scientific problems or just some bad policework in there. These are problems prosecutors need to deal with in making decisions. (And, in these cases, there are defenses, such as “they were acting alone” or “I didn’t mean it.” A skilled defense lawyer would make at least a day of trial out of each sentence that appears from that)

Second of all, look at any plea agreement submitted to a federal court. The practice is to do it in writing, and as far as I know, in every office, a supervisor must sign off on ever agreement (this is definitely a good thing.) Also, I seriously doubt you can name a single ex-USAO who was fired for letting someone plead guilty for 30 years on the federal equivalent of this crime. But, please, prove me wrong: show me a former USAO that was fired for doing this.

Third of all, unless I miss my guess you are getting all your information from a newspaper article. Anyone that has actually had anything to do with a single high-profile case (even high-profile for a small town) knows that the media gets things wrong.

And finally, I submit to you (and feel free to disagree with me) that if someone told the defendant the moment before he did what he did what he did that he would be doing 30-to-life, that he would have second thoughts. He probably thought that he could get away with it completely.

Posted by: S.cotus | Oct 16, 2011 10:21:12 PM

Mr Otis

Americans call it plea bargain, some call it blackmail, in Europe the name is torture.

Posted by: Dott. claudio giusti, italia | Oct 17, 2011 5:39:20 AM

Plea looks a bit lenient from the outside, but shouldn't folks at least consider the possibility that the local prosecutor knows her case, her judges, her juries, etc., a bit better than we do?

Posted by: passing through | Oct 17, 2011 10:50:31 AM

Doug, there may be cases where it seems like threatening death may help achieve a just outcome (although I thought our Constitution already provided a mechanism for that -- it's called a "trial"). But have you really taken account of the frequent cases where death is used to coerce factually questionable or excessive pleas? In many of the southern states, this happens routinely. You put together borderline cases without strong evidence of guilt; incompetent, overburdened defenders; looming, conservative (and death-qualified) juries, and you get a recipe for a kind of justice that I don't think you would defend if you took a good look at it. To take just one example, this is how women plead guilty to LWOP on "baby shaking" cases that end up looking more like accidents on closer inspection. I'm not saying this is every case, but it is enough of them that I really think the leverage provided by capital statutes, on balance, has a negative effect on the administration of justice.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 17, 2011 11:01:36 AM

LOL @ Claudio,

Judging by your language, one would think that the American criminal justice system performed at a level below Thomas Cromwell's "trials" for Saint John Fisher, Saint Thomas More, and Viscount Rochford (George Boleyn).

If my (admittedly very limited) experience with the American CJS even hinted at the same corruption you consistently imply, I would be afraid to even hug my sister.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Oct 17, 2011 11:37:23 AM

Interesting comments on this article. I find it interesting that 30 years is somehow seen as a slap on the wrist. I'm going to assume (without evidence) that this defendant is in his 20's. He will be eligible for parole (eligible, mind you) when he is in his 50's. Folks, I would sumbit that, almost by definition, that is a long time behind bars.

I read a very interesting article recently that discussed how pegging the ultimate punishment at death warps our system from the outset. All other degrees of punishment are graded on that scale, rather than looked at on their own terms. I think objectively that 30 years is a long prison sentence. The family may disagree, but that is why we don't let families do the sentencing. They aren't objective, nor should they be. This warped perspective is what leads to 150 year sentences for non-violent fraud, and the like.

It seems to me that many legitimate CJ objectives are met in a plea agreement like this (certainty, efficiency, general deterrence [to the extent that there is such a thing, which I doubt], specific deterrence, public safety). I'm sorry that the family isn't pleased with the outcome, but honestly, "pleased" is not something that they will ever be in this situation.

I also second Anon's comments about how we do the death penalty down south.

Posted by: Ala JD | Oct 17, 2011 2:01:40 PM

For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession,

Posted by: Dott. claudio giusti, italia | Oct 18, 2011 10:33:49 AM

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