Plea bargains, especially on serious cases of violence, are engrossing in their own way. To an outsider, the result can seem deeply troubling, fair or unfair.
The mysterious part nearly always lurks beneath the surface. Why?
Here’s why. Do the pleas in plea bargains mean the defendant is truly guilty? Or, did the defendant, while under oath, plead guilty just to end the uncertainty and get things over with?
Only the defendant ever knows the truth, and knows why he or she agreed to say out loud, more or less, “I did it.”
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Michael Peterson’s current situation, a legal limbo, comes to mind. In 2003, he was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2001 death of Kathleen Peterson. After about eight years in prison for Mr. Peterson, the conviction was overturned.
Would a guilty plea now of any sort actually tell us that so much of what Peterson and his attorneys have said over the last 13 years was, well, a big fat lie? The whole accidental fall theory, for example.
After the trial, a juror answered a question of mine by saying that on the first day of deliberations, it was unanimous that jurors did not believe a fall killed Kathleen Peterson. The defense theory quickly went kaput.
But, hypothetically, if Michael Peterson himself were to acknowledge now that it was indeed not a fall at all, does that mean his long-stated innocence of involvement was just a self-serving, cruel hoax?
Would pleading guilty in the coming weeks to a criminal act mean Kathleen’s family suffered needlessly for years beyond the tragedy of losing a loved one by such violent means?
On plea “bargains,” Brad Cooper’s murder case over in Wake County is instructive. Just last month, Cooper pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after an earlier conviction first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Nancy.
That initial verdict against Cooper would come to be overturned, too.
During Cooper’s recent plea, as reported by the News & Observer, the judge asked the defendant, “Did you, in fact, kill Nancy Cooper and dump her body on Fielding Drive?”
Cooper appeared to struggle with the answer. Reportedly, he did not respond to the judge for a minute or more.
The story said that after a private conversation at the bench between the lawyers and judge, “Cooper then responded: “Yes.”
You tell me. Did Cooper mean it when he said, “Yes”? Did he really do what was alleged? Or did he take the plea to avoid spending life in prison if convicted again at trial?
In Durham County, if Michael Peterson made a decision to answer “yes” to a judge’s question asking he if were responsible for his wife’s death, should that settle things? Probably not, unless Peterson went into powerful, plausible and persuasive detail in court about what he said happened the night Kathleen died.
In this scenario, though, how much would a judge really require him to say? Would someone in Peterson’s shoes state the facts, or just a version of events?
Might that someone say later he just wanted to prevent a family or families from going through a second torturous trial?
In mid-September, after Peterson was granted the right to a defense attorney paid by the public, attorney David Rudolf was quoted saying, “I can’t imagine he’d willingly go back to prison under any sort of plea agreement. I think that's a fair assessment. That's not on the table.”
That sounded as if Peterson might plead guilty to something. But Rudolf was also quoted saying, “Michael has been absolutely insistent from the day I met him that he had nothing to do with this, and I believe that's the case."
See the rub? Can someone have it both ways? Yes, in our system I believe they can.
There was, as well, always the possibility that Michael Peterson would want another chance at a trial to show the world he is guilty of nothing. So far, at least, that doesn’t seem like the plan.
These plea discussions have gone on for a long time. Seriously, what’s the holdup? Perhaps interim DA Leon Stanback wanted the new district attorney, Roger Echols, to be in charge of this matter on the prosecution side.
Still, enough delay already.
A while back, I was told by a key figure in the courthouse that if Peterson’s team ever thought he would face no criminal charges in Ms. Peterson’s death, they were sorely mistaken. Guess we’ll see.
I’m also told Kathleen Peterson’s family is definitely having influence on these plea possibilities, as one would expect. What do her loved ones think is justice today, years later? How much of this terrible story are they willing to deal with again?
It’s my view that Ms. Peterson’s emblematic life, and enormous suffering in death, demands that we discover, or rediscover the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
You can reach Tom Gasparoli at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-219-0042.