Volume 106, Number 17 - April 23, 2009
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
SPECIAL REPORT Jury trials, plea deals defended
Law and order isn’t always as easy as it’s played on television.
While attorneys and judges go about their business like anywhere else, Sublette County offers a unique perspective due to its size. Public perception is everywhere — whether it be for a losing streak whispered about former county attorney Ralph Boynton or a plea agreement that didn’t sit well.
Not everyone agrees with how the law plays out — but is it fact or myth that it plays out differently here?
“I’ve not undertaken a study, but I was pretty shocked after my first year on the bench,” said Judge Curt Haws of the circuit court.
In fact, Haws can remember a string of about 13 jury trials in which only three resulted in convictions, while the rest were acquittals.
“That seemed to me to be exactly opposite of what I anticipated,” he added.
Haws actually called around the state to other judges to inquire, finding that he might be in a somewhat different situation than his peers.
Perhaps no institution has come under as much fire as the Sublette County Attorney’s Office, where Boynton did, indeed, carry a double-digit losing streak in jury trials.
That does not appear to be the case under current county attorney Lucky McMahon. During her time as county attorney, starting in July of last year, her office actually has a higher conviction rate than the national average.
Worry that her office also does not have enough trials is also unfounded, but is rather right at the national average.
“We do have cases going to trial all of the time, they’re just not always jury trials,” McMahon said.
However, she noted several difficulties when going to trial, some of which might have stung her predecessor.
“There is a phenomenon that everyone in the state is aware of, and if you ask other counties they will tell you that it’s true,” she said. “Citizens of Pinedale have a different mindset than the rest of the state. They’re very independent thinkers.
After talking to jurors after trials we have found that they want to be convinced beyond any doubt, instead of beyond reasonable doubt.”
“I can confirm that the juries have made that statement, that they wanted a little bit more,” he said.
That mentality can make it difficult on the prosecuting attorney.
“Beyond reasonable doubt is a high burden, beyond any doubt, there are very few situations where there’s going to be no doubt at all,” McMahon said.
Certain crimes have proven difficult to convict, including DUIs.
“They (jurors here) don’t seem to like to convict people of DUIs,” McMahon said. “It’s really hard to get a conviction on that and that is a lot of the cases we’ve lost in the past.”
Generally, DUI cases go before a jury when the defendant originally refused a Breathalyzer. The evidence to convict mainly comes from the officer’s field report and a field sobriety test. That test, and even the officer testimony, can become a hang up for a jury, McMahon said, but they should be sound most of the time.
“They always give you three [tests] and you’re not going to flunk every one of them unless you are inebriated,” McMahon said. “That’s a hard concept to sell to the jury. They don’t always go with that.”
Is there a more difficult burden of proof in Sublette County? Not all officials agreed.
“I don’t think that’s true,” said Judge Marvin Tyler of the district court. “I think that Sublette County has all the tools and all the procedural setup to administrate justice in a fair manner.”
From his experiences thus far, Tyler is confident in his juries’ behaviors.
“I think that every case is fact driven,” he added. “The burden of proof in criminal cases requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“They (jurors) take that oath very seriously. I don’t think they hold the prosecution or state to a higher requirement, nor do they lower those expectations.”
Of course, the juror system is somewhat setup to reflect its region.
“That’s the way the jury system was designed to work, to reflect the communities values,” Haws said. “I do think the bar is a little higher in this county. I don’t think that’s either good or bad. It’s just the lay of the land and everyone in that system needs to understand that and make their presentations accordingly.”
Pinedale attorney John LaBuda has worked in several counties across the state, but has found little difference in his experiences.
“I personally don’t see any difference in our jurors here in this county than in any other county,” he said. “Just as in other counties, we have a mix of people that have been here a long time and a mix of people that have been here a short time. And I think collectively, when they’re on the jury, they do a good job. I don’t see a tougher burden [of proof required].”
And really, perception is much of the law.
“[Beyond a reasonable doubt] is a term that the court leaves to the individual jury to determine,” Haws said. “The system is tilted for a presumption of innocence.”
Any public perception of a slacking attorney office — or one that does not go to trial enough — appears unfounded.
“For both the defense and the state, it’s impossible to take everything to trial,” LaBuda said. “Trials, you know, they look good on TV where they last twelve minutes and two commercials, but in reality, there is a lot of preparation for the jury trial. Mentally and physically, they are draining.”
Aside from the fact that the majority of cases plead not guilty, many cases must reach a plea agreement for a number of reasons. Costs and work hours are factored in: Judges simply cannot see every case or the justice system would become clogged. The county attorney’s office is also supposed to seek a just and fair conclusion, which may not always mean going to trial, McMahon added.
If a specific sentence is a near certainty, it also makes much more sense for the defense to plead out to that. “Pleading cold” admits guilt, and then the prosecution and defense argue for sentencing.
A plea bargain is different. It is a better sentence than what the defendant would get if convicted to the maximum sentence — perhaps one and a half years in prison instead of two.
Cases are also stacked on the same day, often due to Wyoming’s speedy trial laws which require a trial in 180 days of the defendant’s arraignment, so the county attorney’s office must prioritize which cases will plead and which to take to trial based on evidence, witnesses, seriousness of the crime etc.
“We can’t take them all,” McMahon said. “We don’t have the time, the man hours or the court time. You have to start making decisions.”
LaBuda routinely must evaluate his cases for plea agreements.
“If both sides can agree on a plea, that’s probably the better way to go,” he added.
There are almost too many factors to consider, all of which can change the face of a case.
“When the public sees two people who are arrested for selling drugs, and they seem to be treated very differently — we’ve had to look long and hard at the specific facts of the case,” McMahon said. “Just because a defendant is guilty, doesn’t mean we have the evidence that we think our jury is going to need to be completely convinced.
“When we make those decisions, it’s not random or arbitrary. It’s based on a lot of people with a lot of experience really looking at all those factors and coming to the best solution for each case, based on that case.”
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