When plea bargaining goes wrong.

Most everyone knows that plea bargaining is a regular part of our criminal justice system.  It’s been estimated that about 95% of all felony conviction nationwide come by plea bargain rather than a jury trial.   In fact, without plea bargaining the court dockets would be overwhelmed and the system would get bogged down.

While on many occasions plea bargaining can work in the defendant’s favor and can result in the best possible sentence, there are times when it can go wrong.  For example, according to this Huffington Post article, a Wisconsin woman last week appeared in court with a plea bargain for second degree murder that would avoid almost any jail time. It was an unusual case because the 75 year-old woman named Ruby Klukow was charged with murdering her infant daughter more than 50 years earlier.  The plea agreement she reached called for her to serve 45 days in jail and probation.  The judge, however, thought that was far too lenient and rejected the plea bargain and sentenced Klukow to 10 years in prison. Even though the judge rejected the sentence the lawyers agreed to, Klukow was not allowed to withdraw her plea.

In New Hampshire if a plea bargain is reached and the judge believes the agreed-upon sentence is too lenient, the defendant has the right to withdraw the plea. The article discussed above demonstrates that not all states follow this rule. Additionally, federal courts rarely allow guilty pleas to be withdrawn and defendants who plead guilty rarely know the exact sentence they will receive.

Of great concern in the Klukow case is the apparent shady behavior of the prosecutor.  As a caveat it should be noted that the media does not always get it right, and there is no direct quote from the prosecutor in the story. Having said that, according to the article,  the prosecutor knew he would have a hard time winning at trial, “so he worked out a plea agreement calling for a lenient sentence knowing the judge would probably overrule him with a much tougher punishment.”  If so, this would be extremely unethical behavior in that 1. a prosecutor should only prosecute a case that he believes he can prove beyond a reasonable doubt; and 2. if a prosecutor makes a sentencing recommendation to a judge and/or to a defense lawyer, he should do so in good faith.

The Klukow case highlights the importance of having a seasoned criminal defense lawyer by your side if you have the misfortunate of being accused of a crime.  There are many dangers to navigate whether the case goes to trial or is resolved by a plea bargain.  Court practice and procedure can vary greatly by state-to-state and even county-to-county, so it pays to have a lawyer familiar with the specific judicial system in question.

Over the last several years even the United States Supreme Court, hardly a liberal bunch, has acknowledged the importance of plea bargaining by reversing several convictions when defendants did not have effective assistance of counsel when negotiating plea bargains.  The lesson is: plea bargaining should not be taken lightly, even when everything seems on track.

5 Responses

  1. In 2012 -I turned myself in to the county jail Hennipen , state of minnesota. On a felony warrant- for failure to registra, preditorial offender, the jugde ,- prosecutor and the public defender that was assigned to represent me agreed to a -plead bargain .I went along with it , however before i came before the jugde to be sentenced, I found out that a different jugde would be sentencing me . So i wrote the jugde that agreed to the plead agreement, letting him know that I wanted to with draw my originial plead because i was going to be sentenced by another jugde. Upon my public defender finding out my actions – he came to visit me in county lockup and assured me that the new jugde that was going to be sentencing me was ready to uphold the originial agreement. He did i was released- The agreement was to follow all instructions of probation & the court, and re-main law abiding. ( treatment at the V A hospital) ( obtain employement) ( get housing) (stay in contact with probation). I accomblished all that, the job i obtained was a sells position, very high stress, and because i was a star sales person in our office and the new kid on the block i couldn’t take time off out the gate . My probation officer didn’t get that and wanted me to leave my job to come see him in the middle of the day at a location that public transportation didn’t go to (I didn’t have a vehicle) and was in walking distance. Because i didn’t show up he violated my probation and issued a warrant for my arrest.( needless to say at that point i’m in violation of Registration again) ( at that time i was living in stearns county minnesota) the plead agreement was made in Hennipen county, so that’s the county i turned myself into – on the warrant) under the assumption -after talking to a stearns county police officer, that i would be able to resolve the warrant issue -even in hennipen county. while in custody the same public defender that represented me with the originial plead agreement is now my public defender again. I tell him that i turned myself in to Hennipen county jail on a stearns county warrant- for probation violation and failure to Registra. I go to court plead guilty to failure to Registra – following the advice of the P.D. Under the thinking that i’m resolving the Stearns County Warrant- But un-known to me Hennipen County is charging me with a separate charge of failure to Registra. My thinking is this Public Defender, the Prosecutor and the Court settle a score at my expense and dry fucked me. Is this legal- and if not what can i do in my defense. because i just found out that Stearns county is still charging me with failure to Registra and has issued a warrant for my arrest.

  2. Why didn’t you get a letter from your Supervisor staying he could not give you time off, your boss knew you were on parole huh?, if not that was the first Mistake, your P.O. knew you had just got a job, what county was you to register in? the one in which you live correct, I know this is old but before you take any type of deal or plea under boykin vs. Alabama, you must be aware of the consequences to the plea, what rights you give up and if by accepting this plea you will be violated on a charge they have on you in another county, it’s not too late to appeal, but first you got to show the court that had your attorney not hid this information from you you would not have plead guilty!!!!!,

  3. My nephew was charged with soliciting a companion while out of state on business Once the girl arrived he figured out that she was underage and did not have any interaction with her His lawyer talked him into accepting a plea deal with the understanding that the plea would involve a fine parole and register as an offender He is a god loving man with three beautiful children when he appears for sentencing there is a replacement states atty
    Long story short he has been sentenced to two years he is now in prison where he is Supposed to be in minimum security Since he was taken into custody he has remained in maximum security receiving threats Is there anything that can be legally done to fight the plea as well as what can we do on the outside to ensure his safety This absurdity of justice is in Kansas

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