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August 23, 2012

Can a plea deal with one murder defendant take death off the table for another?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local story from Ohio in which it appears that one defendant is trying to get the death penalty blocked before his trial based on a plea deal purportedly made with a co-defendant.  Here are the particulars:

The judge in the William Inman Sr. murder trial says he'll decide Thursday whether to take the death penalty off the table.  Inman is charged with killing his daughter-in-law, Summer, then dumping her body in a septic tank in 2011.

Defense attorneys are questioning those involved in initial plea negotiations involving Inman's wife, Sandra, for her role in the murder.  Sandra Inman eventually agreed to testify against her husband in exchange for a 15-years-to-life prison sentence.

Inman Sr.'s lawyers say prosecutors' initial deal with Sandra Inman included an assurance that neither she, nor her co-defendants (William Sr. and the couple's son, William Jr.) would face the death penalty.

Prosecutors say that deal was invalidated when Sandra Inman cut an interview short, declined to provide truthful answers, and initially pleaded not-guilty by reason of insanity, before changing her plea to guilty.

A former Sandra Inman attorney, Bill Henderson, testified Monday that he was involved in plea negotiations that included a sentence of 12-years-to-life for Sandra Inman, as well as an assurance that "the state will not pursue the death penalty against the co-defendants."

In cross examination, prosecutors asked Henderson why he would make such a deal, since the prison term is three years less than the 15-years-to-life mandatory murder sentence in the state of Ohio.  Henderson testified that he anticipated the deal would be "tweaked" when the case went to court -- and was then told he breached the deal early on when his client first pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, instead of guilty to murder.

A jury found William Inman Jr., guilty in June for the murder of his wife; he was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.  Jury selection in William Sr.'s trial is expected to begin Thursday, after the judge rules on the motion to remove the death penalty from consideration.

Beyond the factual questions of what kind of plea deal might have been put together by the local prosecutors and various defendants in this case, I wonder more broadly about legal questions surrounding whether, when and why a plea deal with one defendant can and should categorically preclude a judge or jury from considering an otherwise lawful sentence for another defendant.

I vaguely recall from my 1L contracts class two decades ago some doctrines about when and how third-party beneficiaries can seek enforcement of a contract between two other parties. But even if basic contract law might enable one defendant to seek to secure a benefit from another defendant's plea deal, I think that such a deal to preclude consideration of a statutorily authorized punishment for a crime could be viewed as void against public policy.

In my view, as a matter of just and effective sentencing policy and practice, it is troublesome enough that defendants and prosecutors often can and will cut (seemingly enforceable) deals intended to revise the applicable legal process and sentencing options for that defendant (e.g., take away appeal rights, limit arguments for departures/variance, etc.). I think it could be even more worrisome if and when defendants and prosecutors could put together enforceable deals to revise the applicable legal process and sentencing options for any number of other defendants.

UPDATE As this new local story now reports, "[a]fter hearing arguments this week, Hocking County Common Pleas Court Judge John T. Wallace this morning denied a defense motion to eliminate death as a possible penalty if William "Bill" Inman is convicted of aggravated murder in a trial beginning Tuesday."

August 23, 2012 at 10:49 AM | Permalink


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Doug, from my bar exam materials (Bar/Bri so got it from Professor Epstein) a third party beneficiary (William Sr. and Jr.) can enforce a contract against a promisor (the government) only if the the 3rd party knows of and relies on the contract. So from a pure contract standpoint it would seem this would qualify. However, I do agree with you that it is against public policy.

If we assume that the initial plea deal was still good, which I have questions about given this article, the proper way to enforce it is to say the government didn't uphold their end of the bargain so she can withdraw her guilty plea.

Posted by: Matt | Aug 23, 2012 11:42:26 AM

I don't know that it would be against public policy. The state is attempting to make its case against the co-D, and apparently needed this witnesses testimony to make the case. It sounds to me on this very brief recitation of the facts, that she was unwilling to testify if anyone would face the DP. The state received the benefit of its bargain: her testimony to secure the conviction of the two co-D's.

Posted by: Ala JD | Aug 23, 2012 12:25:07 PM

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