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Guest column: Plea negotiation serves a greater good

8-17-15 Oregon:

Like the vast majority of criminal cases of the approximately 1,000 convictions that occur annually in Clatsop County (and elsewhere) the case did not go to trial but was the result of negotiation — what is sometimes called a “plea bargain.”

Late in July a well-known local man, Michel Thomas Mitchell, was sentenced after pleading guilty to charges of attempted sexual abuse in the first degree, bribing a witness and tampering with a witness. The victim, who was not identified, was under 12 years old when most of the molestation occurred.

Like the vast majority of criminal cases of the approximately 1,000 convictions that occur annually in Clatsop County (and elsewhere) the case did not go to trial but was the result of negotiation — what is sometimes called a “plea bargain.”

If cases were not negotiated we’d need triple the number of prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges that serve our county’s justice system. Far from being some sleazy “deal” (the headline on the story read “Plea deal reached on sex abuse allegations”) a plea negotiation trades the certainty of a conviction for the state, the finality for the victim, and a known and usually bargained for resolution for the defendant. There is nothing “alleged” about his actions. He stands convicted of three serious felonies, one of which will require him to register as a sex offender.

Contrary to an angry letter written by a friend who also happens to be a prominent local business owner, Mr. Mitchell had every opportunity to “tell his side.” They are generally called trials.

He had a right to remain silent in court, but now some of his supporters are trying his case in the court of public opinion and in that forum he’s chosen never to tell “his side.”

But he had the services of a privately retained and highly skilled defense attorney who negotiated the best result possible for his client. The letter, published July 31 in The Daily Astorian, charged that he was “never given a fair chance to defend himself.” Nothing could be further from the truth. His computer had been professionally wiped, he refused to take any tests offered that might indicate he did not commit the acts to which he ultimately admitted, and he chose to plead guilty rather than face trial by his peers.

Unfortunately the news story told readers he entered an “Alford plea,” but then only later explained it was a guilty plea.

There are three pleas in the American justice system — not guilty (meaning either the defendant is claiming innocence or declares the state has insufficient evidence to convict him), “no contest” in which the defendant does not contest the evidence against him and a guilty plea.

The “Alford plea” comes from a 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case (NORTH CAROLINA v. ALFORD) where a murder defendant claimed he only entered the guilty plea because of fear he might be convicted of something worse or receive a harsher sentence. The Supreme Court held that claiming you were “really innocent but still pleading guilty” meant … you were pleading guilty … period. More recently, in 2006 a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge held that an Alford guilty plea is a “variation of an ordinary guilty plea.” The only difference is that the defendant, who often has vehemently denied his guilt to friends and family can claim, “I didn’t do it, but they’ll convict me anyway.”

Mr. Mitchell did not receive “60 days of alternative sanctions” in place of “300 years in prison.” In order to prevent a young child, who had already been sexually abused, threatened, bribed and manipulated, the further abuse of enduring a trial, our office agreed (with the consent of the child and her parent) to a sentence that places Mitchell on supervised probation as a sex offender for five years. He is required to serve 90 days in jail, 60 of which can be served on what are called “alternative sanctions” largely because as is well-known we have almost no jail space. But more importantly Mr. Mitchell will be sentenced to 70 months in prison if his probation is revoked. There won’t be a further negotiation on the term and he’ll serve every day of the almost six years in a state prison if he flunks probation.

There are several teachable moments in this case. Child sexual abuse occurs across all ethnic, socio-economic, and gender lines. Most “child molesters” do not look like cartoon figures, they resemble your neighbors. This case no longer involves “allegations” but proven and admitted facts.

The community should be supportive, as it largely has been, of brave young women (and men) who have the courage to come forward and report when adults in positions of trust violate that trust in a way that sometimes scars the child for life. To deny that this occurred in the face of a guilty plea is simply denial of facts and truth.

Not everyone accused is guilty, or maybe not guilty of all the crimes of which they stand accused, but Oregon provides some of the best levels of defense, even for those without means (not the case in this particular instance). The people who sit on the grand jury or, ultimately, the trial jury come from our community and bring the collective common sense of that community to bear. ..Source.. by Joshua Marquis is the Clatsop County district attorney, and Dawn Buzzard is the senior assistant district attorney.

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