Plea-bargain decision underscores right to justice

march 29, source :

For those fortunate few who’ve never been exposed to the criminal justice system, it might seem odd to learn that more than 90 percent of all criminal convictions in federal and state courts are the result of plea agreements with prosecutors.

Because of the crushing volume of cases, the courts would not work without the use of “plea bargains” that avoid the necessity of time-consuming trials.

Now come two rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that underscore what should be obvious: Defendants have a constitutional right to effective counsel by their attorneys when considering plea negotiations, the Journal’s Michael Hewlett reported. The rulings are expected to change the way pleas bargains are handled, which may mean more work for defense attorneys but perhaps a better system of justice overall.

The revelation of so many wrongful convictions in recent years makes the idea that defendants have a right to a clear understanding of any plea offer a no-brainer — and long overdue. Criminal defense lawyers should be expected to do a thorough job briefing their clients when prosecutors offer plea bargains.

“This could affect every defendant in the system,” Ron Wright, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, told the Journal. It won’t bring the system to a halt, he said, but defense attorneys likely will have to file more paperwork and take more time to ensure their clients get the right legal advice regarding plea offers. That’s a worthy goal.

In one of the cases the high court ruled on, Anthony Cooper rejected a plea offer because his attorney told him that prosecutors could not prove the crime. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison instead of the seven years he could have received under the plea.

Cooper’s attorney “had no business practicing criminal law if he didn’t know better than that,” Pete Clary, Forsyth County’s public defender, told the Journal. Clary said defense attorneys have an ethical obligation to present all plea offers to their clients and advise them accordingly.

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill said plea offers are written down and placed in the public court file, and the defendant is informed of the plea offer in open court.

If that is accompanied by a defense attorney’s consultation with his client on the pros and cons of the offer, then the defendant has been treated fairly and equitably by our system of justice. That should be a given

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