West Virginia Court of Appeals Denies That a Judge Made a Plea Bargain in State v. Wall

gavel.jpgIn State v. Wall, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals recently affirmed a lengthy sentence given to a petitioner convicted of sexual abuse. The decision is a reminder that in West Virginia, “[t]here is no absolute right . . . to plea bargain.”

Edward William Wall originally pleaded guilty to charges of sexual abuse and was convicted. He served 16 months of his sentence before being released on probation. Less than four months later, a petition of revocation was filed, and Wall pled guilty. After his sentence was reinstated and then suspended, he was allowed to resume probation. Less than a year later, Wall’s probation was revoked once again. Wall tried to convince the court to transfer his probation to Ohio, where he could live with his parents. Judge Knight, a temporary appointee sitting in the place of a recently retired judge, ordered the probation office to check if Wall could live with his parents. At the same time, Judge Knight reinstated Wall’s original sentence of 10 to 20 years. After Wall tried and failed to have his request reconsidered by another judge, he filed an appeal with the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

Wall argued on appeal that Judge Knight would have allowed him to reinstate probation if his transfer to Ohio were approved. Because of this, Judge Knight’s oral announcement of sentence was enforceable like a contract. Failure to honor the plea agreement to have Wall’s probation reinstated was the same as a contract breach. The State responded that there was no agreement — or if there was, it was non-binding since it was issued by a temporary judge.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals agreed, and went further by noting that “a circuit court does not have to accept every constitutionally valid guilty plea merely because a defendant wishes so to plead.” The Supreme Court of Appeals emphasized that Rule 11 of the West Virginia Rules of Criminal Procedure defines a plea agreement as something between a West Virginia criminal defense attorney and the prosecutor, with no involvement from the judge. There was no evidence that discussions between Judge Knight and Wall’s defense attorney represented a plea agreement, as Judge Knight made no promises that he would sentence Wall to probation in Ohio. Overall, the Supreme Court of Appeals found that the lower court did not abuse its discretion by revoking Wall’s probation and by reinstating Wall’s original sentence of 10 to 20 years.

We at the Wolfe Law Firm have represented many criminal suspects and are very familiar with plea bargaining. In fact, most criminal cases nationwide are settled by plea bargaining rather than by a trial. An experienced criminal defense attorney would know how to work out an agreement with the prosecutor to reduce his or her client’s possible sentence. While a defense attorney may believe that his or her client is innocent, in reality it may be a difficult case to prove. A successful plea bargain could allow a client to serve a less burdensome sentence and take the next step in life.