Plea-bargaining in capital murder cases: Is it fair to victims?

Plea-bargaining in capital murder cases saves taxpayers millions in court costs. But, does it provide justice for victims or their families?

by Susan Funaro
updated February 22, 2023 ·  4min read

The very process seems to bypass the justice that comes standard in a criminal trial. Even worse is the potentially light sentence given to an accused murderer in exchange for an admission of guilt. Yet, prosecutors continue to play "let's make a deal" with captured murderers. The question is: Why?

Deals for information

Prosecutors argue that plea bargaining is an effective tool to elicit information from a potentially uncooperative defendant.

In April 2005, Olympic bombing suspect Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty in exchange for disclosing the whereabouts of his caches of explosives. Rudolph had been arrested for the 1996 Olympic bombings, which left one woman dead and more than 100 people injured. He was also suspected in connection with three other bombings that killed a police officer and critically injured a nurse. As a result of the plea, Rudolph led police to 250 pounds of dynamite that might not have been found had Rudolph been prosecuted.

If the deal removes the murderer from society for life, isn't it the best form of justice served?

Yet, families of victims have expressed deep disappointment with plea bargaining.

When prosecutors offered Green River serial killer Gay Ridgway 48 life terms without parole in exchange for his other victims' locations, the families of the confirmed victims were angry yet ultimately understanding. The unconfirmed victims' families would also need resolution, and the plea was directed towards helping these families. Often, prosecutors must weigh the information gained from the plea against the desire for justice. In Ridgway's case, there were so many unconfirmed victims that information about their whereabouts was critical.

Dealing for a sure thing

Many supporters posit that plea bargains ensure that the criminal is put behind bars. Cases that go to trial can often produce disappointing results because juries are notoriously difficult to predict. A trial is no guarantee that the defendant will be put away, even with the best evidence.

A prosecutor's best defense is to cut a deal with the accused murderer where the facts of the case are weak or where there is fear the jury will acquit.

Dealing to avoid a difficult defendant

Plea bargains have also been used to maintain order against difficult defendants. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski had once eluded the FBI for 18 years. In that time, he had killed three and wounded 23. Finally, he was caught. Rumor had it the prosecution had an airtight case. So, why did they plea bargain? The simple answer: Ted Kaczynski was going to be an extremely difficult defendant.

For one, Kaczynski was itching to represent himself at trial. He saw it as an opportunity to present his political views and explain how the bombings were part of a rational plan to deter the development of technology.

Then, when his request for self-representation was denied, he was adamant that his lawyer not use mental illness as a defense. With very few defenses available, his defense team may have been limited to arguing Kaczynski's claims, and the trial would have likely become a circus.

He finally agreed to a plea bargain of four life sentences plus thirty years.

Dealing to protect the victim

Prosecutors also argue that plea bargains avoid putting the victim on trial. In fact, the plea bargain shields victims so that they do not have to relive the ordeal or be questioned by hard-hitting defense teams, which can often provoke more suffering.

Matthew Shepard had been brutally beaten and died days later at the hands of Aaron McKinney and his band of followers. At the time McKinney's cohorts were arrested, information was also surfacing about the victim's bar cruising, an attempt to rationalize the brutality of the crime. To be spared more anguish over her son's death, Matthew Shepard's mother agreed to a plea proposal.

Dealing to avoid the costs

The judicial system endorses plea bargains because they help to avoid the expense of a trial. The costs of capital murder trials are particularly exorbitant because of complex pretrial motions, lengthy jury selection, and expert witnesses. Appeals are equally costly.

In turn, these costs are shouldered by the state (taxpayers), which pays defense expenses when the accused is indigent and provided with a mandatory court-appointed attorney. Since a death penalty defense can run into the millions, virtually everyone charged with capital crimes is declared indigent and represented by a public defender or court-appointed lawyer. When the accused is wealthy, but their money runs out before the case is resolved, as, with the Menendez brothers, state law requires taxpayers to pick up the defense bill.

On the other hand, the prosecution's costs to investigate, arrest and prosecute can be just as expensive. It cost the state of California over $2.1 million to prosecute Scott Peterson for the murder of his wife, Laci. The estimated costs to taxpayers could reach $5 million when and if he appeals.

Generally, attorney fees in capital cases are estimated at $500,000 to $1 million and doubled again for trial costs such as forensic work, investigators, and expert testimony. Yet, it's difficult to rationalize a concern to keep the cost down when justice is at a premium.

An imperfect solution

Plea bargains are an imperfect solution to seeking justice in murder trials. In many instances, pleas have been abused. Yet, in other instances, they have been instrumental in seeking information from the criminal, preventing the usurpation of a trial by the accused, and sparing the victim's family a trial that attempts to discredit the victim. Ultimately, if the deal removes the murderer from society for life, it may be the best form of justice served.

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Susan Funaro

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