Contrary to television portrayals, most criminal cases never reach trial. While it is difficult to put a number of it, I would say that 90 to 95% of criminal cases are resolved by dismissal or plea bargain. Our Fort Worth criminal defense attorneys put the interests of the client first and will always pursue a dismissal and sometimes attempt to reach a favorable plea deal with the prosecutor as an alternative to the uncertainty of trial. But in some occasions, a trial is the only way to go. What follows is a recent case opinion from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals regarding a plea bargain situation gone wrong.
On advice from counsel, Israel Rodriguez rejected a ten-year sentence plea bargain. Rodriguez was convicted and received eight life sentences.
Rodriguez filed for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel; he believed his attorney’s advice regarding the plea offer was wrong. Rodriguez asked that the State be required to re-offer the ten-year deal.
The judge granted a new trial and ordered the State to re-offer the deal. The judge proceeded to reject the deal.
After denying the ten-year deal, the judge informed Rodriguez he could withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial or accept a 25-year sentence. Rodriguez rejected the 25-year sentence and filed a recusal motion, arguing that the judge had demonstrated prejudice. The judge recused, and a new judge was assigned.
Rodriguez filed a motion to require the State to re-offer the ten-year deal. The new judge said the original judge’s recusal had “wiped the slate clean,” including the ten-year plea offer, but he would accept a new agreement if one were presented. The state offered a plea deal of 25 years, which Rodriguez accepted. The judge accepted the plea agreement and executed the judgments of conviction.
Rodriguez argued on appeal that he was entitled to the original ten-year offer and the court was required to accept it. The court of appeals considered three factors: (1) whether Rodriguez would have accepted the original offer; (2) whether the State would have been likely to withdraw the offer; and (3) whether the judge would have likely accepted the agreement.
The court of appeals concluded Rodriguez had suffered inadequate representation. The court’s solution was for the State to re-offer the ten-year deal and have a judge who had not recused herself accept or reject the deal. The court did not agree that the judge was required to accept the ten-year deal. The case was remanded for the State to re-offer the deal.
The State filed for review of the court of appeals’ decision, alleging four errors:
(1) The voluntarily recusal should not have been considered.
(2) Nothing in the record supported the possibility of the original judge accepting the ten-year deal.
(3) The second judge should not have been required to order the State to re-offer the ten-year deal.
(4) The judgment of conviction should not have been reversed.
The CCA considered the same three factors considered by the court of appeals. Although Rodriguez’s convictions were vacated, he was still entitled to a determination of whether he had received effective counsel. The CCA agreed with the court of appeals that Rodriguez had been harmed by following his attorney’s advice in rejecting the offer. No evidence suggested Rodriguez would have rejected the deal. The State was not likely to withdraw the offer because the passage of time had made the victims’ testimony at trial unreliable.
The CCA said the only question was whether the first judge would have likely accepted the ten-year deal. No intervening circumstances would have given the judge a basis to reject the deal. However, Rodriguez did have an extensive criminal history, and the police reports for his charges were particularly damning. But nothing in the record indicated the judge would have rejected the ten-year deal if it had been presented to her prior to the trial. The CCA thus rejected the State’s second allegation of error.
The State agreed the first judge would have likely accepted the ten-year deal prior to trial, but it argued the voluntary recusal was irrelevant. No evidence indicated any prejudice against Rodriguez. Requiring the State to re-offer the ten-year deal and then rejecting it were proper rulings and did not require recusal. On the State’s first allegation, the CCA said, the court of appeals had erred.
The CCA sided with the State on its third allegation, finding Rodriguez had received exactly what he requested–a new trial with a clean slate and a decision on a plea agreement by a judge. The second judge was not obligated to give Rodriguez what the first judge had already given—consideration of the ten-year deal. Therefore, there was no requirement that the State re-offer the ten-year deal. The CCA did not consider the fourth allegation because its decisions on the first three allegations made the fourth issue moot. The CCA reinstated the 25-year sentence offered by the State, agreed to by Rodriguez, and accepted by the second judge.
An individual facing criminal charges will be advised by his Fort Worth criminal defense attorney regarding whether to accept the deal. Although the decision is ultimately up to the defendant, bad advice that ultimately leads to a worse outcome than the deal offered may present an opportunity for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel.