Federal district judge explains his remarkable reasons for rejecting an unremarkable plea deal in heroin dealing prosecution
From the Sentencing Law & Policy blog (a terrific resource for judges):
A helpful reader alerted me to a fascinating opinion issued last week by US District Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia in US v. Walker, No. 2:17-cr-00010 (SD W. Va. June 26, 2017) (available here). The full opinion is a must read, and here is its conclusion:
My twenty-two years of imposing long prison sentences for drug crimes persuades me that the effect of law enforcement on the supply side of the illegal drug market is insufficient to solve the heroin and opioid crisis at hand. I also see scant evidence that prohibition is preventing the growth of the demand side of the drug market. Nevertheless, policy reform, coordinated education efforts, and expansion of treatment programs are not within my bailiwick. I may only enforce the laws of illicit drug prohibition.
The law is the law, and I am satisfied that enforcing the law through public adjudications focuses attention on the heroin and opioid crisis. The jury trial reveals the dark details of drug distribution and abuse to the community in a way that a plea bargained guilty plea cannot. A jury trial tells a story. The jury members listening to the evidence come away with personally impactful information about the deadly and desperate heroin and opioid crisis existing in their community. They are educated in the process of performing their civic duty and are likely to communicate their experience in the courtroom to family members and friends. Moreover, the attendant media attention that a jury trial occasions communicates to the community that such conduct is unlawful and that the law is upheld and enforced. The communication of a threat of severe punishment acts as an effective deterrent. As with other criminalized conduct, the shame of a public conviction and prison sentence specifically deters the sentenced convict from committing the crime again — at least for so long as he is imprisoned.
Over time, jury verdicts involving the distribution of heroin and opioids reinforce condemnation of the conduct by the public at large. In turn, respect for the law propagates.117 This respect for the law may eventually reduce such criminal conduct.
The secrecy surrounding plea bargains in heroin and opioid cases frequently undermines respect for the law and deterrence of crime. 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.
For the reasons stated, I REJECT the plea agreement.
It will be quite interesting to see if the parties appeal this rejection of the plea agreement or if the defendant decides to plea without the benefit of any agreement (which I believe must be accepted if the judge finds it is voluntary).