A Plea for Justice in the Melchert-Dinkel Case?

“[t]he process whereby the ACCUSED and the PROSECUTOR in a criminal case work out a mutually satisfactory DISPOSITION of the case subject to court approval. It usually involves the defendant’s pleading guilty to a lesser offense or to only one or some of the counts of a multi-count INDICTMENT in return for a lighter sentence than that possible for the graver charge.”

The Definition of  Plea Bargaining courtesy of The Encyclopedia of Everyday Law

According to the Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, “more than 90 percent of criminal convictions come from negotiated pleas,” meaning that “less than ten percent of criminal cases go to trial.”

Now you might be asking why I would be writing about plea bargaining in relation to the Melchert-Dinkel case, given that the trial is scheduled to start on April 11th, 2010 in Rice County Minnesota?  The answer is pretty simple . . . a Settlement Conference has been scheduled for February 17th.

According to court records, the purpose of this hearing is to attempt to settle the case before going to trial and make sure everything (motions) are taken care of before trial.

Besides judicial housekeeping relative to motions et al, the Settlement Conference is a normal part of any ajudication whether it be criminal as in the case of Melchert-Dinkel, or civil re one company suing another.

Regarding Melchert-Dinkel, if the defendant pleads guilty at this hearing, a Sentencing hearing date will be scheduled or the judge will sentence the defendant.  Conversely, if the defendant continues to plead not guilty, the jury trial will begin on April 11, 2011.

For those unfamiliar with the legal process, the concept of a Settlement Conference can raise many disturbing questions, especially given the fact that plea bargaining has been maligned as being a vehicle for accelerating throughput versus dispensing justice in the American court system.

When faced with as complex a case as Melchert-Dinkel’s, the temptation for the Rice County DA to settle is likely significant as he would be able to avoid losing at trial and therefore having to respond to questions as to why he failed in what will undoubtedly be a very high profile trial.  In short and as any lawyer will tell you nothing, regardless of the evidence, is a foregone conclusion when a case comes before a judge.

Another possibe point of leverage that the defence is likely to use is that even if the DA wins the case, as Dr. Weinblatt pointed in our December 15th panel discussion (Cybercrime, Insanity Pleas and the Right to Die: A Guest Panel Discussion), many incedinary trials that are influenced by public sentiment versus the letter of the law so to speak can be overturned when a conviction is presented to a higher court on appeal.

On the defendant’s side of the fence, the uncertainty factor with going to trial swings both ways meaning that a conviction is still a conviction and there is no guarantee that a higher court will throw out the verdict.

This is why the possibility for a successful plea bargain generally speaking is so high.  If Melchert-Dinkel’s lawyer and the Rice County DA are open to the possibility that the case can be settled without the time and expense of a lengthy trial, then the type of plea negotion will come into play.

Referencing our ever handy Encylopedia of Everyday Law, plea bargaining involves three areas of negotiation; Charge Bargaining, Sentence Bargaining and Fact Bargaining.

With Charge Bargaining, the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge and thereby avoids having to stand trial on more serious charges.  This is an interesting option in that one would be hard pressed to come up with a lesser charge that relates to Minnesota’s assisted sucide law, the violation of which is the basis for Melchert-Dinkel being brought to trial in the first place.

Sentence Bargaining would mean that Melchert-Dinkel would plead guilty as charged, and in return would receive a lighter sentence.  Under Minnesota’s Suicide-Aiding law (609.215 subd. 1), if convicted Melchert-Dinkel would face a sentence of “Imprisonment of not more than 15 years or a fine of not more than $30,000 or both.”   It is anyone’s guess at this time as to what if any period of incarceration and/or fine would be acceptable to the defence, especially given the possibility of a guilty verdict and being subjected to the good sense of the presiding judge relative to sentencing.

The presiding judge in this case is Thomas M. Neuville who prior to be sworn in as Judge for the Rice County District Court on January 10th, 2008 was a member of the Minnesota Senate whose special legislative interests included crime and public safety, prisons, child support reform, courts and judicial selection, health care reform, family, cultural and life issues.

Judge Thomas M. Neuville

Born January 31st, 1950, Neuville is a member of the Republican Party of Minnesota and a father of 5 children, who is also a Catholic.  Given his background especially his legislative interests I am not certain that I would want to be Melchert-Dinkel standing before him for sentencing after being convicted of violating the State’s Assisted Suicide law.

Finally, there is Fact Bargaining, where an admission to certain facts (“stipulating “to the truth and existence of provable facts, thereby eliminating the need for the prosecutor to have to prove them) in return for an agreement not to introduce certain other facts into evidence.  Unlike the Charge and Sentence bargaining, Fact bargaining is the least used negotion in plea arrangements, and quite frankly is not likely to in and of itself have a role in any discussions between the DA and defence counsel.

Whether this case ends up as the majority of criminal cases which are settled through the plea bargaining process, or by way of an actual trial verdict like OJ Simpson, Melchert-Dinkel has for all intents and purposes become a Pariah in his community meaning that the prospects for any kind of normal life is practically nil. 

This is little comfort to the victims’ families as well as those who like myself, are angered at the defendant’s callous and self-gratifying actions.   Perhaps the fact that he will ultimately have to answer to a higher authority one day means that justice will inevitably be delivered.

In the here and now however, we are manacled to a legal process that for better or for worse is still one of the best, if not the best, in the world.  To some, this is where the buck stops!

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