“Last week the interns were shepherded to court with an opportunity to watch a plea hearing of one of GJP’s previous clients. This case was unique. Not only were the charges against the client severe but the case was closed almost five years ago when a jury handed down a guilty verdict. The case and the client, however, had a number of exceptional conditions that encouraged the judge to grant a new trial. The hearing impacted me in many ways. Not only was it was my first plea hearing but the client was my age. Most 25 year olds are thinking about our futures, and what we want to accomplish personally, academically, and professionally. We are dreaming not contemplating our basic civil liberties; we are not thinking about our own freedom. This plea hearing was just that for this client. While I was thinking about the client, I was also very intrigued by other things I saw in court. Predominantly, I was surprised by the judge’s role.
This case was brought back in front of the court after the state and the defense negotiated a new plea. I thought that after the two adversarial components worked out a “deal” the judge basically rubber stamped the case to be processed. This was not the case. The judge asked very probing questions of both the state, the defense counsel, and of the client. He struggled with the details of the incident and the procedural posture of the case. He voiced his frustration about the lack of justice for the victim and his fear that the negotiated plea did not equate to the severity of the charged crime. Where I thought a judge sat in a more managerial role, acting as the gatekeeper to proper application of the judicial system, I learned their role is far more involved.
I was surprised to learn about the difference between negotiated pleas and non-negotiated pleas or “blind” pleas. I didn’t realize that after the state and the defense negotiate a plea, what they offer to the court at a plea hearing is simply a recommendation that the judge can choose to apply or ignore. I did not appreciate the extent of judicial discretion that could be applied during the plea hearing. In the end, after a roller coaster of a hearing, the judge did apply counsels’ recommendation with an added condition to probation.”