Why would defense attorneys accept a plea bargain from a district attorney who had voluntarily disarmed himself?
That's the question that came to mind when I read that two accused cop killers accepted life terms in exchange for guilty pleas.
Just to be clear, my compassion meter is set at zero for the confessed murderers. I'm just wondering what their defense attorneys were thinking when they accepted a plea bargain that looked like a pig in a poke.
Carlton Hipps and Ramone Williams pleaded guilty and surrendered their right to appeal. Under the plea arrangement, they'll get life plus 50 to 100 years in jail, meaning they will never get out. Fine with me.
In exchange for their guilty plea, Krasner took the death penalty off the table.
Except … it wasn't really on the table.
Krasner ran for DA on a promise he'd never seek the death penalty because he has a moral aversion to it. I thought everyone knew that and believed that, but maybe not.
"They would have gone to trial if they didn't think he would have certified this for a death penalty jury," says Sara Jacobson, associate professor of law and director of trial advocacy at Temple University's Beasley School of Law.
Was Krasner bluffing?
"If he is not going to go for the death penalty, there is nothing to be lost by going to trial," says veteran defense attorney Nino Tinari. The defense attorneys should have tried "to establish reasonable doubt. There is nothing to lose, there is no downside to it."
Prominent defense attorney Chuck Peruto commended Krasner for making the offer — because not having a trial "would save taxpayers a half-million dollars." However, "there is no real reason to take the deal if the DA is not going to seek the death penalty."
Going to trial would produce "the same result," says Peruto, "meaning life in prison."
On Monday, Krasner used the identical phrase: "same result."
To make the deal palatable to him, says Tinari, he would have wanted "something in terms of 30 to 60 years, less than first-degree."
While defense attorney NiaLena Caravasos says accepting the plea offer "makes no sense to me," it does keep the two off "horrific" death row, and that might be what they were thinking.
The reality is this: Even if the two had been convicted of first-degree murder, there is almost zero chance of execution. The last murderer put to death in Pennsylvania was Gary Heidnik in 1999, and that was only because he requested it. Peruto was Heidnik's lawyer.
After his election, Gov. Wolf issued a moratorium on all executions and Krasner called the death penalty "expensive, ineffective, and racially biased." So Hipps and Williams had almost no chance of being put to death. Their attorneys could not be reached for comment before deadline Monday.
So even though — right now — there is little chance of the death penalty's being used, this illustrates one benefit of having it: as a bargaining chip the prosecution can use to squeeze a guilty plea and save the taxpayers money. That sounds mercenary, but the bigger reason is to clear the crime from the books with a conviction.