For many criminal defendants, the risks of a potential criminal trial far outweigh the possibility of a guilty verdict. This makes the option of taking a guilty plea an appealing way to minimize the risk of a lengthy jury sentence and create more certainty as to the time one will spend in prison. Plea deals also involve signing away many rights, however, and must be approached with a good amount of care and attention to detail. In exchange for a reduction in charges or jail time and avoiding a jury trial, criminal defendants often give up their rights to appeal the proceedings or challenge the ultimate punishment imposed. A recent case before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals considered a criminal defendant’s attempt to appeal a sentence by arguing that government attorneys failed to uphold their end of a plea deal bargain.
In our court system, criminal defendants who cannot afford to have legal counsel are entitled to have a public defender appointed to represent them in their criminal trials and proceedings. While many of these public defenders provide competent and admirable legal assistance in the face of overwhelming and stressful workloads, there may be occasional failures of representation. Such failures can also happen with privately retained counsel. When these failures gravely affect a criminal defendant’s case and compromise his or her rights, a criminal defendant can sometimes have decisions of the court, or a conviction, overturned on the basis of “ineffective assistance of counsel.” A recent case before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals looks at whether ineffective assistance arises when a criminal defense attorney fails to object to a court’s rejection of a plea deal.
One form of defense against criminal charges that is frequently shown on TV, but less often used in the courtroom, is the defense of insanity. Under West Virginia criminal laws, a conviction for most crimes requires the government to prove that the defendant acted in a criminal fashion (the actus reus) and had the mental state necessary for the crime (the mens rea). When a criminal defendant is insane, he or she lacks the ability to have the mental state necessary for the crime, and accordingly this is a defense to criminal charges and possibly a lifetime in jail. Because of the significant implications of the insanity defense, it can be very difficult to prove and often requires extensive evaluation by outside experts. A recent West Virginia Supreme Court case deals with the insanity defense and how it is handled in criminal court.
A plea deal offer isn’t exactly a free ticket for a walk in the park. Although these agreements – in which a person charged with a crime agrees to admit to some version of the crime in exchange for the possibility of a lesser punishment – can be a valuable tool for a criminal defendant, they also come with some risk. For example, there is the risk that the defendant will still wind up getting sentenced to a long stretch in prison, as a recent case out of the West Virginia Supreme Court shows.
Mr. Fields was sentenced to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree robbery without the use of a firearm. Fields and another man robbed a gas station at gun point in June 2013, according to the Court, and he was later arrested and charged with first-degree robbery. Fields later entered a plea deal with prosecutors in which he agreed to plead guilty to the lesser offense of robbery without the use of a firearm. A circuit court accepted the guilty plea.
At the sentencing hearing that followed, Fields asked the circuit court for the minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years. He also asked that the court place him in an inpatient drug treatment facility. State prosecutors also recommended that Fields be sentenced to 10 years behind bars. Nevertheless, the circuit judge opted to triple the amount of prison time to a total of 30 years.
Plea deals can be a valuable tool for a person charged with a crime. They often allow the accused to agree to admit to a lesser crime – meaning less potential time in jail – in exchange for agreeing not to contest the charge at trial. The deals typically come with a number of rules that both the defendant and the prosecutors are expected to play by, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently explained in a case out of West Virginia.
Mr. Wells was charged with various federal drug crimes following an incident in which law enforcement officers stopped his car and searched the vehicle. The cops found more than two grams of crack cocaine, according to the Court. Wells later agreed to a plea deal, under which he plead guilty to one count of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He also agreed to be completely truthful with law enforcement about his involvement with drugs. In return, federal prosecutors handling the case said they wouldn’t use any information that Wells gave them to later prosecute him for other crimes or to enhance his sentencing under the plea deal.
Wells was eventually sentenced according to federal guidelines, which take into account a number of factors such as the type of offense and the defendant’s criminal history. In this case, the sentence was enhanced because of the amount of crack Wells was caught with, as well as the fact that he was found to be carrying a handgun at the time and admitted to keeping a premises for making the drugs. During a sentencing hearing, prosecutors called Mr. Williams – Wells’ alleged partner in the drug dealing ring – as a witness. Among other questions, they asked Mr. Williams if he knew that Wells said that it was Williams who had given him more than two grams of crack. Williams denied the accusation, which the prosecutors said was based on information that Wells gave law enforcement in an interview following the plea deal.