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Is Plea-bargaining in Capital Murder cases fair to victims?

by  Susan Funaro

Plea-bargaining in capital murder cases saves taxpayers millions in court costs. But, is it is fair to the victims or their families? The very process seems to bypass the justice that comes with a standard criminal trial. Even worse is the potentially light sentence given to the accused murderer in exchange for his admission of guilt. So, why play "let's make a deal" with captured murderers? Here are some of the arguments made by prosecutors.


Deals for information

In April of 2005, Eric Rudolph pled guilty and disclosed the whereabouts of his caches of explosives in exchange for four life sentences. Rudolph had been arrested for the 1996 Olympic bombings which killed one woman and left more than 100 people injured as well as three other bombings that killed a police officer and critically injured a nurse.

When Jeff Lyons, the husband of the injured nurse, found out of the Justice Department plea he expressed that they were both "extremely disappointed" that Rudolph had avoided the death penalty. Ultimately, Lyons understood that as a result of the plea Rudolph led police to 250 pounds of dynamite that would likely not have been found had Rudolph been prosecuted.

If the deal removes the murderer from society for life, isn't it the best form of justice served? 


Dealing for a sure thing

Unabomber Ted Kaczynski had once eluded the FBI for 18 years. In that time, he had killed three and wounded 23. Finally, he was caught. The question is: after all of that time and a supposedly airtight case, why plea bargain?

For one, Kaczynski was itching to go to represent himself at trial. He saw it as an opportunity to present his political views in the hopes of proving that the bombings were part of a rational plan to deter the development of technology.

However, when his request for self-representation was denied, he was adamant that his lawyer not use mental illness as a defense. With very few defenses available, his defense team may have been limited to arguing Kaczinski's claims. So, two, the trial would have become a circus.

And, ultimately, he agreed to a plea bargain of four life sentences plus thirty years.


Dealing to avoid the day(s) in court

Some argue that plea bargains avoid putting the victim on trial. In other words, victims do not have to relive the ordeal or be questioned by hard-hitting defense teams which can in turn cause more suffering.

Matthew Shepard's mother in fact helped the defense and prosecutors agree to giving ringleader Aaron McKinney life in prison. Matthew had been brutally beaten and tied to a fence in freezing temperatures for eighteen hours in 1998 at the hands of McKinney and his minion.

Four people were arrested. Over time, deals were struck with his cohorts in exchange for testimony against Aaron McKinney. At the time, information was surfacing about the victim's bar cruising, an attempt to rationalize the brutality of the crime. Shepard's mother wanted to be spared more anguish over the brutal death of her son and agreed to the plea proposal.


Legal Purposes of Prosecution & Punishment 

The legal rationale behind plea bargaining is that it expedites the legal process by avoiding a lengthy, expensive trial. Other reasons prosecutors are willing to deal with the accused murderer is when their case is weak and there is fear the jury will acquit the accused, or the prosecution wants to deal with the accused for information.

Additionally, the costs of capital murder trials are exorbitant because of complex pretrial motions, lengthy jury selection, and expert witnesses. Appeals are equally costly, plus the state (taxpayers) bears defense expenses when the accused is indigent and must have a court appointed attorney. Since death penalty defense runs into the millions, virtually everyone charged with capital crimes is declared indigent and represented by a public defender or court appointed lawyer. When the accused is wealthy, and their money runs out before the case is resolved, as in the case of the Menendez brothers, state law requires taxpayers pick up defense bills.


Legal Costs of Prosecution & Punishment

The prosecution's costs to investigate, arrest and prosecute Scott Peterson for the murder of his wife, Laci exceeded $2.1 million. Peterson's defense costs are also estimated to be in the millions; estimated costs to taxpayers could reach $5 million with appeals. Attorney fees in capital cases are estimated at $500,000 to $1 million, and doubled again for trials costs such as forensic work, investigators, and expert testimony.


Capital Murder vs. Murder

If one's idea of exacting justice in murder cases is seeking the death penalty for the accused, it can only be sought, if the murder is a capital offense, which means the murder involved a peace officer, occurred while committing another first degree felony, murder for hire, killing a child under age six, or killing more than one person during the same period. Although the death penalty can only be sought for capital murder, it is not always sought by prosecutors. The state can seek life in prison, which averages up to forty years without parole. If the state seeks the death penalty, the case must go to trial, plea deals are impossible.


Justice through trials

Cases that go to trial can often produce disappointing results. Juries are notoriously difficult to predict. Just think back to the O.J. Simpson verdict. Many were shocked by the result. But more generally, if the accused goes through the trial process, and is given the death penalty, justice is not swift. The average amount of time on death row prior to execution is 10 years.


An Imperfect Solution

Plea deals are an imperfect solution to seeking justice in murder trials. In many instances, pleas have been abused. Yet, at other instances, they have been instrumental in seeking information from the criminal and spared the victim's family an ugly trial. Ultimately, if the deal removes the murderer from society for life, it may be the best form of justice served.

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