Many assume that criminal cases heard in court are resolved by a judge handing down a decision after a trial. However, 97% of them are resolved by plea bargains – this involves the defendant admitting guilt and the prosecution theoretically seeking more lenient penalties. Judges encourage this because it is faster than trying each case, thus reducing the court’s backlog. The judge usually accepts the deal, but not always.
The notable exception
Some may remember Georgia U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejecting the plea deal struck for two of the three men convicted of killing Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in 2020. Wood rejected an agreement that would avoid a federal hate crimes trial for Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael. The two men and a third accomplice were already convicted of murder by the state. The reason for the federal trial was to establish that the crime was racially motivated.
Despite the plea requiring the men to admit the murder was racially motivated, Aubrey’s family vocally objected to the deal of 30-year sentences for the men because it would place them in federal prison, which is considered less harsh than the state-run one. (The U.S. criminal justice system has increasingly allowed victims’ families to be consulted on the plea negotiations but cannot veto them.) The judge agreed with the family, stating the federal guidelines for the plea deal would force her to follow specific sentencing of a 30-year sentence rather than whether it was a just and fair sentence.
The prosecution and the defense worked out a new plea deal that removed some of the lesser charges, and the defendants would get some points for admitting to a racially motivated killing. It also allowed the judge to dictate sentencing. However, the McMichaels withdrew their pleas and chose to go to trial. A few weeks later, the jury found the three men guilty of all charges, including hate crimes and attempted kidnapping.
The strengths and weaknesses of pleas
The Arbery case had national exposure and was highly complicated, so the plea process was also complicated. In most cases, the plea deals arrive before the trial begins or during the trial when it becomes clear what direction the case will go. The benefit is that the guilty can get a less severe sentencing or alternative penalties rather than risk the maximum time in prison or penalties. Conversely, it forces or coerces defendants to admit guilt, which may not accurately reflect the circumstances and preclude their right to appeal.
It is always wise to discuss a potential plea deal with an experienced criminal law attorney before agreeing to it for these reasons and many others.