Federal judge rejects plea deal in drug case, says trial can reveal 'dark details' of opioid crisis

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A federal judge in West Virginia has refused to accept a plea deal in a drug case in hopes a trial will reveal “the dark details of drug distribution and abuse to the community in a way that a plea bargained guilty plea cannot.”

In a June 26 opinion (PDF), U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin said a plea deal was not in the public interest. The Washington Post, NBC News, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and Sentencing Law and Policy have stories.

The plea deal, Goodwin said, “was made in the context of a clear, present, and deadly heroin and opioid crisis in this community.” West Virginia, which has the highest rate of fatal drug overdoses in the nation, “is ground zero,” the judge said. The national overdose rate is increasing and synthetic opioid drugs like fentanyl are the driving force of the increase, he said.

“The secrecy surrounding plea bargains in heroin and opioid cases frequently undermines respect for the law and deterrence of crime,” while “the bright light of a jury trial” can enhance respect for the law and educate the public, Goodwin wrote.

“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,” Goodwin said.

“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 defendant, Charles York Walker Jr., withdrew his guilty plea last week, two days after Goodwin issued his opinion, according to the Gazette-Mail. Walker was accused of three counts of distributing heroin, two counts of distributing fentanyl, and possession of a firearm. The deal would have allowed Walker to plead guilty to a single count of possession with intent to distribute heroin.

Goodwin noted that Walker had a “voluminous criminal history,” had been involved with illegal drugs for most of his life, and had warned a confidential informant that some of his drug purchasers had recently overdosed.

Goodwin included some statistics in his opinion. The percentage of federal criminal convictions obtained as a result of a guilty plea has risen from 50 percent in 1908, to 88.5 percent in 1993, to 97.1 percent in 2015.

The justification for plea bargaining is that the courts are overburdened and prosecutors are overworked, but that is no longer true, Goodwin said. The number of federal prosecutors and federal judges is growing, even as the number of federal criminal trials is declining.

In 1973, each federal prosecutor handled eight criminal trials on average. By 2016, the average had plummeted to 0.29, Goodwin said.

Lex Coleman, the federal public defender representing Walker, told the Washington Post in a story published this week that “’this is the first time anything like this has happened in 25 years’” of practicing law. He added that the defense team was weighing options on how to proceed.

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