Defense attorneys stress that they will agree to an early plea bargain only if it's in a client's best interests. That's not always the case, they said, pointing to the nearly 150 criminal convictions that were overturned because Rampart Division officers had planted evidence or lied in court. Many of those defendants had said they were innocent but agreed to plea bargains for fear that jurors would not believe them.
"We're asking people on a daily basis to give up their most precious commodity--their freedom," said Chief Deputy Alternate Public Defender David Carleton. "We don't ask people to give up their freedom lightly."
In the June Supreme Court ruling, justices ruled unanimously that before the trial stage of a case, defendants are not entitled to information that could be exculpatory or could be used to impeach prosecution witnesses. Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley issued a memo last month instructing his deputies to continue providing exculpatory information to defense attorneys as early as possible. But Cooley said that impeachment information should not be given to the defense until after a preliminary hearing.
Assistant Public Defender Adolfo Lara said the high court's decision could be a "major stumbling block" to early dispositions. "If that disclosure is not made, we're operating in the dark," he said. "We cannot proceed."
According to the California Rules of Court, a judge can impose a lighter sentence if the "defendant voluntarily acknowledged wrongdoing ... at an early stage of the criminal process." But defense attorneys say they often need more time to investigate a case or to gauge the strength of the prosecutors' evidence.
Cases sent to the early-disposition court generally are ones in which defense lawyers indicate that a plea deal is likely. Deputy Dist. Atty. Priscilla Musso reviews each case in Division 50 by analyzing the facts, contacting the victim and checking the defendant's prior record. Then she jots down an offer for what she believes the case is worth. "But it's all negotiable," she said.
Defense attorneys read the offers and hammer out deals with Musso. Then, with the guidance of their attorneys, the defendants decide whether to accept a deal or take their chances at trial.
"The notion of trust is imperative," Carleton said. "It's extremely difficult to walk into a lockup and say, 'Hi. I'm your attorney. Do you want to plead guilty today?' "
Earlier this month, Musso sat down to discuss a case with Deputy Alternate Public Defender Gabrielle Gopin. Her client Ronald Anderson had been charged with possession of drugs for sale and faced a maximum sentence of seven years in state prison. Musso offered three years.
A Good Deal
Gopin knew it was a good deal, because Anderson had prior convictions for burglary, forgery, grand theft and drug possession. But she asked for something better--probation and drug treatment, allowed for some offenders under a new California law.
Musso shook her head. "No, not on these facts." Besides, he's got a prior record "lengthy as all get-out," she said.
Gopin nodded and took a deep breath. "OK. I didn't think so. I'll go back and talk to him."
About 15 minutes later, a sheriff's deputy led Anderson out to a bench at the side of the courtroom. He had decided to take the deal. Horwitz sentenced him and sent him on his way. Altogether, Anderson's case was in the justice system less than a month--a quarter of the time of a typical felony case.
The key to success in early-disposition courts, Oki said, are judges and lawyers with experience and the willingness to negotiate. In July and August, Horwitz either settled or dismissed 569 cases, compared with the 40 that were resolved in the early-disposition courtroom during the same time last year.
As more cases are sent to such courtrooms around the county, prosecutors say they need to ensure that they are continuing to pursue justice, not just churning out pleas.
"This is not a sausage factory--even though it looks like one," said Asst. Dist. Atty. John Allen. "But if we can get to a just result quickly, why don't we?"