24 January 2006

Plea Bargaining In Federal Court

Eddie Denton, Jr. is shown above.

Plea bargaining places an undue burden on the exercise of constitutional rights as currently practiced. Want an example?

"Denton was offered a plea agreement with an anticipated sentence of 18 to 36 months, but he rejected it and went to trial." Consequently, Denton's decision to put the government to its proof functionally increased his sentence from 18 to 36 months to life imprisonment.

Denton was the only one to go to trial:

The Clique members --- Percy Bruce Jr., Damarius Simmons, Jamall Sallis Jr. and Willie Outlaw Jr. --- pleaded guilty to various charges and testified against Denton.

Bruce was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Simmons is serving a 30-year sentence and Sallis was sentenced to 10 years and six months. Outlaw is serving 15 years and three months.

The crime for which he was convicted was conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of crack, 500 grams of more of cocaine, and some marijuana, within 1000 feet of two playgrounds. He was also observed possessing, but not brandishing or firing a handgun, in and around Waterloo, Iowa. The judge believed that he lied on the stand to the jury, but didn't specify when. It is also notable that the rejection of the plea ageement came within two years of suffering a serious brain injury and that Mr. Denton is currently 70 years old. His arguments ranges from a claim that he was a secret undercover police informant (he was drummed out of the police force based on bribery accusation in 1990), that he wasn't aware of the full extent of the drug dealing operation of which he was a part, and that he was a minor player in the overall scheme.

There, at least, doesn't appear to be any evidence to suggest that Denton's involvement was more serious than that of his co-conspirators. Indeed, given the respective plea bargain offers made, it appears likely that prosecutors felt that Denton was the least culpable member of the drug gang. The other members who pleaded guilty received far harsher sentences than what Denton was offered.

The mandatory minimum sentence was 10 years, which in Denton's case would likely have been a life sentence, or close to it, in any case. But, the purpose of this sentence was not really to put Denton away until he was no longer a threat to society. It was to strengthen the hand of prosecutors in future plea negotiations.

The full appellate court opinion in Denton's case is found here. The federal appellate court affirmed the life sentence (recommended by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which are no longer binding but often considered presumptively reasonable by appellate courts).

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