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Sonoma County lawyers say plea bargains invaluable

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The call came as defense attorney Walter Rubenstein was preparing for the trial of an unlicensed driver who had struck and killed a Sebastopol motorcyclist.

Prosecutors wanted to deal.

After reviewing the evidence, they offered to drop vehicular manslaughter charges against Jorge Valencia-Figueroa, then 33, of Cloverdale, who was accused of careening into Glenn Vierra, 58, as he rode his Harley-Davidson on Highway 116 near Cotati.

All Valencia-Figueroa had to do was give up his right to a trial and admit driving without a license — a misdemeanor carrying a six-month jail sentence. It was something he had been cited for four times before. Then he would be eligible for release with credit for time already served.

Rubenstein didn't need to be asked twice. He took the deal.

"They could have made the argument that he didn't use caution and what he did was inherently dangerous," Rubenstein said. "But I think they did the right thing."

Vierra's family disagreed.

"We were all pretty upset about what happened," said his son, Andrew Vierra, of Eagle, Idaho. "I definitely feel (Valencia-Figueroa) wasn't held accountable for what he did."

In what may come as a surprise to many, a fraction of offenders charged with crimes in Sonoma County ever go to trial. All but three-quarters of 1 percent of the more than 15,000 felony and misdemeanor cases resolved last fiscal year were settled by other means. The overwhelming majority were disposed of by plea bargaining.

The widely accepted practice that defies TV courtroom stereotypes is seen as necessary to relieve the overburdened criminal justice system while offering defendants a measure of certainty about the punishment they will receive.

Without it, the courts likely would grind to a halt under what one expert said would be a 20-fold increase in jury trials. Taxpayers would be on the hook for additional courthouses, judges, bailiffs and other support staff.

Instead, cases are quietly resolved, often in court hallways or through email exchanges between prosecutors and defense lawyers who make concessions to each other. Judges sanction the deals in private meetings where they often say in advance what sentences they are willing to impose.

"Very, very few cases end with that dramatic moment when all the lawyers come together and have this clash over the truth," said Stanford Law School professor George Fisher, whose book, "Plea Bargaining's Triumph: A History of Plea Bargaining in America," was published in 2003.

Statistics from Sonoma County Superior Court offer a glimpse of what happens on the local level. Of the 15,055 criminal cases that were resolved in the 12-month period ending in June 2013, 112 resulted in jury or court trials that produced convictions or dismissals.

The remainder — 14,943 cases — were settled before trial. The exact number of plea bargains was not available, but court officials expect it was the vast majority of the cases. Many were routine deals involving nonviolent crimes and drug offenses. Others were resolved after months of back-and-forth negotiations over reduced charges and acceptable consequences.

Chief Deputy Public Defender Kristine Burk described the process in which prosecutors, offenders, victims and judges try to come to terms as "a dance involving multiple parties." Ideally, it ends with neither side "feeling like it got its pocket picked," she said.

"A deal is good when it reflects that conduct that can be proven and protects against an extreme risk a client faces," Burk said.

To the general public, plea bargaining is an ugly term that carries the implication that criminals are getting off easy. But those involved in the process say that is an unfair characterization given the many factors that go into building a criminal case, such as reluctant prosecution witnesses and limited physical evidence.

Presiding Judge Ken Gnoss, a former Sonoma County prosecutor, said sometimes it's the only way to ensure an offender is punished. And with a 27 percent reduction in the court's workforce over the past four years, it makes sense to reserve limited resources for the most serious cases, he said.

"I think there's a misconception when the public hears the words 'plea bargain' that it's in a negative context," Gnoss said. "But it's something that happens in 98 percent of the cases throughout the United States. Without it, the courts would be overwhelmed."

Many times the results are controversial. And despite official assurances, there is a perception that plea bargaining is abused.

One case that's under intense public scrutiny is that of Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who was charged with misdemeanor peeking — a subsection of the disorderly conduct statute — after his pre-dawn arrest last summer outside a Santa Rosa woman's home.

Last week, his lawyer had another in a series of private talks with prosecutors and a judge in an effort to reach a plea bargain. But despite continued discussions, the two sides have not agreed on a reduced charge or punishment, and the case is moving toward a trial on April 18.

Other plea bargains fly under the radar, sometimes enraging victims.

Among them was the case of two men charged with murder in the death of a man outside El Puente Cantina in Santa Rosa in 2011. Jose Campos-Mendoza, 18, and Alfonso Ramirez-Mendoza, 19, were caught on surveillance video at the center of a dispute that ended in the shooting of Christopher "Beto" Medina, 23, also of Santa Rosa.

The defendants faced life in prison if convicted. But on the eve of trial, prosecutors offered a deal in which the men pleaded to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for reduced sentences.

Despite the video, which appeared to show Campos-Mendoza extending his arm and firing after being handed a gun by Ramirez-Mendoza, the prosecution's case was hampered by an uncooperative witness, said Mike Li, Ramirez-Mendoza's lawyer.

Prosecutors offered a package deal: Campos-Mendoza got 21 years and Ramirez-Mendoza 12 years.

"To get a voluntary manslaughter out of a clear-cut homicide, that was a pretty good outcome," Li said.

Members of Medina's family, who came to court expecting opening arguments for a long trial, were unhappy with the result. His mother wept in the courtroom as the suspects pleaded to reduced charges.

Sonoma County prosecutors were criticized for a deal last year involving an Alameda man accused of having phone sex with a 13-year-old Santa Rosa girl and then driving to her middle school to meet her.

The defendant, Arnold Luz, was charged with 10 felonies and faced a long prison term if convicted at trial. But he accepted a plea bargain from prosecutors that would leave open the possibility of probation.

The girl's family complained they were not consulted as required under victims' rights laws, and prosecutors scrambled to reverse the deal. A judge later sentenced Luz to probation after he had served 10 months in county jail.

In other cases, men initially charged with murder were allowed to plead to lesser charges in exchange for waiving jury trials. One involved a Southern California man who stabbed to death a Sebastopol man on a Guerneville footbridge in 2011. The incident was captured on surveillance video.

In another case, a Sacramento pimping suspect with a long criminal history shot to death a Rohnert Park man in a Redwood Drive hotel room. Defendant Berry Adams said he acted in self-defense when Kevin "Ziggy" Craft, 20, pointed a gun at him. He was sentenced to seven years in prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm. The deal was made final in an emotional 2012 hearing in which Craft's sister told Adams her brother's "blood will always be on your hands."

District Attorney Jill Ravitch defended plea bargaining, saying it is the "nature of the business" in both criminal and civil law.

Deals are cut in part because there aren't enough prosecutors to take every case to trial. But they also occur as facts emerge that upend initial impressions about a defendant's guilt or innocence, she said.

"Cases are constantly evolving," Ravitch said. "It's a constant search for truth. A constant search for justice."

As in other jurisdictions, deputy prosecutors in Sonoma County have discretion to offer deals on low-level crimes, she said. But plea bargaining in serious and violent felonies and crimes involving a death are overseen by her team of managing attorneys.

Among the considerations are whether a victim is available to testify and the level of risk posed by the offenders.

Ravitch said she looks closely at criminal backgrounds and the harm caused. After consulting a victim, if a just outcome can be negotiated, it often will be.

"We have to weigh our ability to succeed at trial against the real possibility that the offender will go free," she said.

Many other times, agreements aren't made and prosecutors insist offenders plead guilty as charged, taking their chances at sentencing. That's when judges can step in, telling offenders the maximum sentence they are likely to face if they give up trial rights.

Ravitch said some judges have acted over her objection. She criticized a recent decision in which a man who killed five family members in a Highway 101 crash was granted probation when he violated parole. Ryan Karr of Windsor could have been sent to prison under the state's "three strikes" law.

"We can say, 'plead to the sheet' and the judge can take a case we think is worth a significant period of time and give probation," Ravitch said. "I very much disagree with the Karr outcome. It sends a horrible message not only to him but others."

The justice system encourages many plea bargains. About four years ago, local judges created a special courtroom to streamline the process. In what is called "early case resolution court," people charged with new felonies are offered settlement terms, often at their first appearance. Defendants consult with lawyers, sometimes for a matter of minutes, before taking the deals or holding out for trials. Court officials said the practice has helped relieve a logjam, but defense attorneys say it sometimes comes at the expense of fairness.

Another controversial practice in cases with more than one defendant is the package deal — an offer from the prosecution that is good only if all defendants accept it. Defense attorneys said it's coercive at best and should be outlawed, as it is in Colorado. Burk pointed to a recent case in which a client in a drug slaying wanted to accept a manslaughter offer but was prevented by a co-defendant. He ended up being convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

"Why should one person control the destiny of another person?" Burk said. "I think it's misplaced and wrong."

Prosecutors counter that package deals are a necessity when more than one defendant is charged with the same set of facts. If one is discharged on lesser charges that person could later claim full responsibility, allowing the other defendants to walk.

"When they can point the finger at each other, it's better to keep them together," said interim Chief Deputy District Attorney Bud McMahon, who leads felony prosecutions. "We certainly try to formulate our offers as the evidence dictates. It all has to do with the strength of the evidence."

Fisher, the Stanford law professor, said negotiation has been the dominant way of settling cases for a century. It has increased markedly over the past 20years, especially in the federal system, where 96 to 97 percent of all cases now are resolved through plea bargains, he said.

Local court officials said their numbers reflect that trend.

"It's really clear the courts could not exist without plea bargaining," Fisher said. "The system would break down."

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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