Saturday, March 24, 2012

Supreme Court rulings on plea bargains to have large impact, local lawyers say

Two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on plea bargains will have a large impact on the criminal justice system, a local law professor said Thursday.

"I think these are big cases and they'll have as big effect as any Supreme Court case," said Ron Wright, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law.

In two separate cases this week, a divided Supreme Court ruled that defendants have a constitutional right to effective representation by their attorneys in plea negotiations. The court said criminal defense lawyers should be expected to do a competent job in advising and informing their clients when prosecutors present plea offers.

"This will not bring the system to a halt," Wright said. "I don't think it will shut things down."

But criminal defense lawyers might have to file extra paperwork or do other things to make sure their clients know about plea offers and get the right legal advice, he said.

"This could affect every defendant in the system," he said.

About 97 percent of federal convictions and 94 percent of state convictions in 2009 were the result of guilty pleas, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In one of the cases that went before the Supreme Court, Galin Edward Frye's attorney failed to tell him about plea bargain offers from Missouri before he pleaded guilty to driving with a revoked license. In the other case, Anthony Cooper rejected a plea offer after getting bad legal advice from his attorney, who told Cooper that prosecutors could not prove an element of the crime. Cooper was sentenced to 30 years instead of the seven years he could have gotten under the plea offer.

"That guy had no business practicing criminal law if he didn't know better than that," said Pete Clary, Forsyth County's public defender, about Cooper's attorney.

Clary said criminal defense lawyers already have an ethical obligation to take all plea offers to their clients and provide legal advice on whether they should take the offers.

More lawyers might call for status conferences in Forsyth Superior Court so that a defendant can hear the details of a plea offer in open court, Clary said.

If it's on the record, the defendant cannot go back and say that his attorney didn't tell him or her about a plea offer, he said.

David Freedman, a criminal defense lawyer, said the ruling means that lawyers will be under extra scrutiny to make sure they inform their clients about plea offers. He said more defendants could be brought into court to openly accept or reject a plea bargain.

"That will be a more common course as people start to understand the effect of these cases so there will be no question that the attorney conveyed the plea negotiation and the defendant understood the plea," he said.

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill said he strives to make sure every defendant facing criminal charges knows about any plea offers. Plea offers are written down and placed in the public court file, he said.

"My office always takes great care to see to it that a person charged with a serious felony is informed on the record in open court as to what exactly the plea offer available is," he said. "That way, a defendant can make an informed, rational decision as to what inherent risks he or she will be exposed to during the course of a jury trial."

By Michael Hewlett, The Winston-Salem Journal,, 336-727-7326

Source: The Winston-Salem Journal

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