Sentence First, Verdict Afterward! The Anatomy of Plea Coercion.

Slate's blog on legal issues.
April 6 2008 3:08 PM

Sentence First, Verdict Afterward! The Anatomy of Plea Coercion.

Michael Brick’s ambitious piece in today’s

New York Times
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about the wide ranging narcotics prosecutions in the housing projects of Brooklyn omitted some important details which suggest that the "historic conspiracy" referred to in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s press releases was not the series of drug transactions being prosecuted under the false flag of an overused conspiracy law, but rather one between Mr. Hynes’s office and a compromised judiciary conscripted in the service of unsustainable prosecutions by fawning press coverage and a lack of simple courage.



While Mr. Brick does imply (by quoting defense lawyers) that the use of first degree conspiracy charges had the effect of "exacting jail terms they might not otherwise have won," he does a shoddy job of explaining just how the use of bail coerced plea bargains, and entirely omits the fact that bail is a matter of judicial discretion, thus failing to pose the question of why judges continued to set and maintain bail as case after case collapsed.



The omissions reflect Mr. Brick’s thesis that the cases "stumbled at the courthouse steps." That thesis posits that the system actually works with judges fulfilling their proscribed role as checks on prosecutorial power. In fact, judges were complicit in the continuing prosecution of the cases at each step from arraignment onward.



Mr. Brick correctly noted that those charged with Conspiracy in the First Degree (Penal Law Section 105.17) had bail set at astronomical numbers. Certainly (though he didn’t mention it) this is in part because 105.17 is a class A-1 felony, punishable by life in prison and subject to the same penalties as a murder. Still, there is no statute that requires judges to set high bail, or even, bail at all. In fact, releasing defendants charged even with serious crimes is the prerogative of any presiding arraignment judge, and one of the main things those judges are required by law to consider is "the weight of the evidence against (the defendant) in the pending criminal action and any other factor indicating probability or improbability of conviction." When juries soundly reject conspiracy charges in case after case, and when the district attorney’s office resolutely refuses to even explain the basis for such serious charges citing secrecy, it becomes incumbent upon judges to refuse to set bail and to begin to release defendants charged in the same manner.



What happened in Brooklyn, though, is precisely the opposite. For years and years, despite the District Attorney’s office’s utter failure to secure even a single conviction on Conspiracy 1 charges, judges continued to set and maintain high bail knowing full well that it would take a year or more for cases to come to trial, and that when they finally did, almost no defendant in their right minds would refuse a "time-served" or get out of jail today plea offer. In short, judges were the silent partners in an Alice-in-Wonderland-like sentence—first verdict, afterward regime. Had they done their jobs and refused to set bail based on unsustainable charges, prosecutors would quickly have tired of the legal charade they have used for years to railroad potentially innocent people into pleading guilty to unprovable cases founded on questionable and sometimes virtually nonexistent evidence.



Letting the judiciary off the hook for their complicity does a disservice to readers and perpetuates the myth of a well-functioning system of criminal justice. In fact, as even the most cursory look reveals, co-opted judges, all to eager to appear tough on crime and unwilling to exhibit the courage necessary to take an unpopular stand, have long ago become prosecutorial partners in the tragic dismantlement of the constitutional safeguards we all rely on to protect us from an increasingly overreaching government.

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