For the third time in nine months, U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin has rejected a plea deal, the Gazette-Mail’s Lacie Pierson reported last week.
Plea deals, as a matter of routine in the courts system, are limiting the role of citizens in achieving justice and preserving the balance of power in government, the long-time federal judge said.
Judge Goodwin is trying to send a message to prosecutors — and evidently, some aren’t getting it just yet — that plea deals are not necessarily the best way to ensure the community obtains justice for criminal activity.
Last Wednesday, Goodwin rejected the plea deal for Dana Stevenson, of Charleston, and set a trial date of June 26 after he handed down an opinion in which he said plea deals solely for the sake of efficiency won’t justify his acceptance of such deals in the future.
A federal grand jury indicted Stevenson in March 2017 on five counts of distributing heroin, one count of distributing crack cocaine and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The indictment indicates that Stevenson sold heroin and crack cocaine multiple times in December 2016 and January 2017.
In October, Goodwin rejected a plea deal for Antoine Dericus Wilmore, also of Charleston.
In rejecting Wilmore’s plea deal, Goodwin said he no longer would accept plea deals for the sake of expediency in the court system if those deals came “at the cost of a public health disaster,” referring to the substance abuse epidemic in West Virginia, Pierson reported.
The first of the three plea deals Goodwin rejected was in June, when he ixnayed a deal prosecutors had proposed for Charles York Walker Jr., of Charleston. Walker later pleaded guilty to two counts of distributing heroin and one count of distributing fentanyl. A jury found him guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
During the Walker hearing, Goodwin shot down the often-used justification of an overburdened court system for bargaining away jury trials.
He pointed out the number of federal prosecutors has increased more than seven-fold since 1970 and the number of criminal trials handled per district judge has dropped from more than 21 per year in 1973 to fewer than three per year in 2016.
“Thus, like federal prosecutors, district court judges are not overburdened by trials,” he said. “The bright light of the jury trial deters crime, enhances respect for the law, educates the public and reinforces their sense of safety much more than a contract entered into in the shadows of a private meeting in the prosecutor’s office.”
Goodwin believes the U.S. justice system has gone too far away from what the nation’s Founders intended — the right of trial by jury. That’s a right that protects the accused — and protects the people, he said.
Good for Judge Goodwin for guiding the court system toward more transparency and jury trials, as the judicial system is designed. The community needs to see the light of criminal activity that testimony in public trials can bring.
Prosecutors — who appear to be slow to change so far — should take heed before presenting a plea deal in Judge Goodwin’s court.