W.Va. judge rejects drug case plea deal on principle

Washington Post
Published: 7/4/2017 12:15:58 AM

In a highly unusual move, a federal judge in West Virginia has rejected a plea deal for a man accused of dealing heroin and fentanyl, arguing that “the secrecy surrounding plea bargains in heroin and opioid cases frequently undermines respect for the law and deterrence of crime.”

In his 28-page ruling, district judge for the southern district of West Virginia, Joseph Goodwin, notes the severity of the opiate epidemic in West Virginia, calling the state “ground zero” in a crisis that amounts to “a cancer that has grown and metastasized in the body politic of the United States.”

He argues that given this context, “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.”

In criminal cases, prosecutors and defendants often enter into plea bargains to avoid a jury trial – the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offense, guaranteeing a conviction for the prosecutor and eliminating the possibility of more serious charges for the defendant. While judges have the authority to reject these bargains, in practice they rarely do. In 2016, 97.3 percent of all federal criminal cases were resolved with a plea bargain, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Goodwin’s ruling came as a shock to the prosecution and defense teams who had entered into the plea bargain in this case.

“This is the first time anything like this has happened in 25 years” of practicing law, said Lex Coleman, a federal public defender for Charles York Walker, Jr., the man at the center of the case.

Walker was indicted by a federal grand jury last September on three counts of distributing heroin, two counts of distributing fentanyl, and one count of “being a felon in possession of a firearm.”

Given the “cultural context (of) a rural state deeply wounded by and suffering from a plague of heroin and opioid addiction,” Goodwin argues that “the public has a high interest in the adjudication of heroin and opioid crimes such as these because of the severity of the crisis occurring in our state.”

He gives an impassioned defense of the role of the jury in serving this public interest:

“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.”

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