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November 15, 2008

Another notable example of capital plea bargaining

Thanks to this post at C&C, I saw this news article from Utah describing another case in which the threat of the death penalty helped secure a ready and efficient resolution to a murder charge.  Here are the basics from the start of the news report:

A Sanpete County man avoided the death penalty Thursday by admitting to strangling his former girlfriend in April, and then killing a man he hated. Donald Bret Richardson pleaded guilty in 6th District Court to two counts of first-degree felony aggravated murder.

As part of a plea deal, prosecutors agreed to recommend that Richardson, 48, serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. Defense attorneys James Valdez and McCaye Christianson said Thursday the resolution accomplished their goal of saving Richardson's life. "For a long time he wanted the death penalty," said Valdez. Added Christianson: "It's a peaceful resolution to a horrible, tragic episode."

As regular readers know, I think an important and underexamined aspect of the death penalty is its impact on plea bargaining and other pre-trial aspects of the investigation and prosecution of horrible murders.

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November 15, 2008 at 11:30 AM | Permalink


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"an important and underexamined aspect of the death penalty is its impact on plea bargaining"

This has always struck me as one of your weaker arguments, Doug. Yes, threatening to kill someone might convince them to accept a plea with less trouble for the prosecution. But that's neither a surprising finding nor an especially meritorious reason for supporting capital punishment.

Similarly, if you allow police in interrogation rooms to put their gun to a suspect's head and threaten to blow their brains out, you'd likely see a jump in the number confessions. Based on your argument about the death penalty and pleas, surely you'll endorse that next step as just a modest incremental expansion on your premise that "horrible murders" (as opposed to, one supposes, the positive, uplifting kind) justify such a tactic for prosecutors?

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Nov 15, 2008 5:54:25 PM

Doug, scanning about for a good example of the death penalty's effect on plea bargains, I was reminded of the famous Central Park jogger case, where the death penalty was used to threaten 5 young defendants who falsely confessed, inducing them (as you encourage) to plea quickly in order to save their lives. In that case, of course, they were innocent. See Michael Kinsley's Slate story, in which writes:

"Plea bargaining might also be thought of as an insurance policy. Insurance is a way of trading the risk of a large bad outcome (your house burns down and you're out $100,000) for the certainty of a smaller bad outcome (a bill arrives and you're out $850). Plea bargaining is a way of trading the risk of 20-years-to-life for the certainty of five-seven. But by creating this choice, and ratcheting up the odds to make it nearly irresistible, American justice virtually guarantees that innocent people are being punished."

That's my principle objection to what you're saying. Regardless of one's position on capital punishment, to say you support it to give prosecutorial negotiators a bigger "bargaining chip" is tantamount to saying you're willing to let innocent people be convicted for "horrible murders" to save prosecutors a little time and labor. I know, surely, that can't be your position, but it's the direct implication of this recurring theme about the implied benefit of the death penalty in securing pleas for "horrible murders" - you assume the defendant is guilty, and not all of them are. You've identified a negative side effect that warrants careful regulation, not a benefit to be touted by supporters.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Nov 15, 2008 6:28:55 PM

It's not an "especially meritorious" reason, but it is a good reason, particularly where the "anti" side brings up the costs issue. By taking the DP off the table, you will have increased costs litigating LWOP for people who deserve it.

And for something that is trotted out as not a deterrent, people do a lot to avoid getting executed, don't they?

Posted by: federalist | Nov 17, 2008 2:35:34 PM

"It's not an "especially meritorious" reason, but it is a good reason"

Federalist, you need to find a dictionary and look up the word "meritorious."

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Nov 22, 2008 7:53:25 PM

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