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April 13, 2018

US District Judge explains why he believes "the scales of justice tip in favor of rejecting plea bargains"

A helpful reader made sure I saw a remarkable new opinion from US District Judge Joseph Goodwin of the US District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia in US v. Stevenson, No. 2:17-cr-00047 (S.D. W. Va. April 12, 2018) (available here). The starts of the 19-page opinion should readily reveal why criminal justice fans why this opinion is today's must-read:

On June 26, 2017, I rejected the proffered plea agreement in United States v. Charles York Walker, Jr. after determining that it was not in the public interest.  On October 10, 2017, I rejected the proffered plea agreement in United States v. Antoine Dericus Wilmore after determining that it also was not in the public interest.  In both opinions, I stated that it is the court’s function to prevent the transfer of criminal adjudications from the public arena to the prosecutor’s office for the purpose of expediency at the price of confidence in and effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

I have further reflected upon the near-total substitution of plea bargaining for the system of justice created by our nation’s Founders, and I FIND that I should give great weight to the people’s interest in participating in their criminal justice system when considering whether to accept or reject a proffered plea bargain in a particular case.  I FIND that the scales of justice tip in favor of rejecting plea bargains unless I am presented with a counterbalance of case-specific factors sufficiently compelling to overcome the people’s interest in participating in the criminal justice system.

Therefore, in each case, I will consider the case-specific factors presented to me and weigh those competing factors against the people’s participatory interest and then determine whether to accept or reject the plea bargain. Because I FIND that the presented justifications for the bargain in this case are insufficient to balance the people’s interest in participating in the criminal justice system, I REJECT the proffered plea agreement.

Wowsa! #morejurytrials?

April 13, 2018 at 09:07 AM | Permalink


More jury trials? Maybe more pre-indictment charge bargaining or more discretion in the USAOs in bringing count-heavy indictments. Maybe.

Posted by: Tom Root | Apr 13, 2018 9:18:20 AM

I hope he doesn’t punish the defendant for going to trial when he rejects the plea. I also hope the defendant doesn’t get stuck with a mandatory minimum, multiple 924(c)s or an 851 because of this. Aside from those concerns, I love it. More Jencks, more awareness by the public of the tactics agents use in the field. More sunshine is usually a very good thing.

Posted by: Defendergirl | Apr 13, 2018 10:38:15 AM

That's theoretically great and practically crazy. He must not have much of a criminal docket, although you would think the drug crime docket in WVa is as stout as any place else.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Apr 13, 2018 11:27:26 AM

Also of great interest is the emphasis he places on the grand jury as the will of the people having spoken in favor of a trial, and also noting their great power in the absolute ability to no bill a defendant.

Except that grand juries don't exercize that power. I doubt that they are informed that they can decline to indict because the crime is stupid or the penalty disproportionate and draconian. As frequently noted, a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich. While an exaggeration, it is not that far from the truth.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Apr 13, 2018 11:34:04 AM

Judge Don Willett's first opinion might also be of interest.


Posted by: Joe | Apr 13, 2018 12:12:43 PM

As a FPD for almost 40 years there was a day ..before about 1984, and again in 1987, when there were more trials because the cost,while varied and hard to measure,was up to the Judge and rarely as high as that extracted by AUSA..see defendergirl comment above..this job went from 10-12 jury trial a year to 1 or fewer

Posted by: scott tilsen | Apr 13, 2018 4:14:47 PM

Since Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas made arrests rare in America, I think we can afford to bring all arrested people to an actual speedy, public jury trial of their peers.

The only reason incarceration rates were so high in the 1950s and 1960s was because they were arresting gays and OB/GYNs. Now that that's illegal, incarceration rates have plummeted and there's no need to avoid trials.

Posted by: Obergefell | Apr 13, 2018 8:03:17 PM

If I were a defense attorney, I wouldn't be praising this at all. This judge is rejecting plea agreements because he thinks they are too lenient, not because he is trying to check the power of prosecutors to intimidate defendants into pleading guilty on weak cases.

Posted by: USPO-Retired | Apr 13, 2018 9:23:10 PM

It would be good if all plea agreements were forbidden, thus forcing prosecutors to lower their indictkment counts and even only indict what they think they can manage--if all cases go to jury trial. All cases.

Add to that, making it illegal to assess bail amounts beyond the accused's income level (except in cases where it can be shown that there is some valid, provable reason the person should not be able to get himself released), and you have a much lower county jail poplation and the beginning of real prison population reform.

The third leg would be to start removing the number of offenses to levels of say 1940.

Finally, mens rea for all criminal offenses. If you can't prove intent you can't charge and convict.

There, fixed it for you. Do those 4 things and you have justice the Founders envisioned.

Posted by: restless94110 | Apr 13, 2018 10:31:53 PM

I wonder how close to a binding agreement the parties could reach by crafting a private bargain to enter an open plea to only certain charges. My understanding is that a judge has no power to reject an open plea on the grounds that it is not in the public interest. While it would still leave lots more room to argue what sentence is right it would allow the offender to avoid the possibility of a mandatory minimum if that had been part of the rejected offer.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Apr 14, 2018 1:21:52 AM

Soronel, open pleas would be fine were it not for mandatory minimums which range can be 5,10, 20 and even 30. Pleading open to a 30 year mandatory minimum charge gets you, as one would expect, at least 30 years! Not very appealing to most folks. How about multiple counts? Pleadin open sets you up for consecutive sentences.

Posted by: Hanna | Apr 14, 2018 1:31:39 PM

The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin has rejected plea deals for the third time in nine months. He also rejected plea deals in June and in October




Posted by: Elaine Mittleman | Apr 14, 2018 2:11:08 PM


That is why I included the proviso of only pleading to certain charges, plea bargains very often make most of the charges go away. Such a private bargain would not, of course, be enforceable but a prosecutor would only be able to violate such an agreement once before all trust would be lost.

However, I have a hard time seeing three plea bargains rejected in nine months as a blanket policy (that is, I have to think plenty of other plea bargains were also accepted during this period). And if that is the case I don't see a lot of pressure on the prosecutor's office to make such private agreements in order to deal with their caseload.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Apr 14, 2018 2:50:14 PM

Plea bargaining benefits the guilty but hurts the innocent. As a career prosecutor, I am for a substantial cut back on plea bargaining. We should plead what we can prove and prove what we have plead. That may result in more trials, which is a good thing, but I expect a lot of defendants will still plead guilty.

Like defendergirl, I like the idea that the public will see law enforcement tactics. Except, the reality will show that the nearly all defendants are clearly guilty and the vast majority of law-enforcement act professionally and ethically. That will be useful for their next jury service. Ultimately I don’t think it will reveal any nasty underbelly. At least not here in the Bay Area.

Don’t forget that it is easy for a prosecutor to prosecute a clearly guilty defendant, it is hard to defend them all.

The defense bar and their clients don’t want this, because it reduces the currency of forcing the government to trial. They will just end up doing more time.

Posted by: David | Apr 14, 2018 7:36:08 PM

The question becomes clearly guilty of what? The worst charge in the indictment? Or something lesser? Or an unindicted lesser included offense that a judge refuses to instruct?

And a web search of "san fransciso and wrongful convictions" belies your claim about LEO ethics.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Apr 14, 2018 11:53:17 PM

San Francisco is an outlier in every sense of the word. Plus, I wouldn’t take Adachi’s word on the point.

Posted by: David | Apr 15, 2018 10:50:45 AM

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