Court: Judges have the right to reduce plea-bargained sentences in certain circumstances

The Supreme Judicial Court today upheld rulings from lower-court judges that gave two defendants less severe sentences than they had themselves agreed to.

In a 2010 case in Brighton District Court, Judge David Weingarten reduced Marcos Rodriguez's 2 1/2-year sentence for drug possession with intent to distribute to 1 year after he realized Rodriguez had agreed to plead guilty to possession of one type of drug when he was actually guilty of possession of another type of drug that carried less severe potential penalties.

In a 2010 case in Lawrence District Court, Judge Laurence Pierce reduced the six-month jail sentence Aaron Dean-Ganek agreed to for armed robbery to a suspended sentence after learning Dean-Ganek suffered from bipolar disorder, Asperger's Syndrome and ADHD and had a substance-abuse problem.

In both cases, the district attorneys argued the judges couldn't do that; the Essex County District Attorney's office argued that if the Supreme Judicial Court said otherwise, it would be forced to stop offering plea bargains altogether.

The state's highest court, however, ruled that while Massachusetts criminal procedures do not let a judge impose a tougher sentence than agreed to by prosecutors and defendants, there is nothing that bars him or her from imposing a more lenient sentence. In the Brighton case, the majority of the court ruled:

The existence of a plea agreement, even a plea agreement with an agreed recommendation, does not bind a judge to a sentence the judge later determines to be unjustly harsh. ... The judge simply exercised a quintessential judicial power--the power to sentence--and ultimately concluded that the agreed recommendation was more severe than justice permitted.

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Comments

DA: What an absurd ruling

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Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley says:

Justice Spina is absolutely correct in his dissent when he says calls this decision "absurd." This novel interpretation of a long established rule means that prosecutors, the elected voice of the people, are now the only party in a courtroom who will be held to their word.

Judges are no longer required to honor the terms of any agreement that protects the public's interest - only a defendant’s interest. Justice Spina is also correct in recognizing the damaging effect this decision could have for the swift administration of justice as a whole as prosecutors are left with no assurances that the rights of victims or the interests of the public safety will be honored.

Fortunately, Justice Spina and even the concurring justices recognize the very real risk of a severe slowdown in the criminal justice system and a tragic loss of confidence in the courts by victims of crime and the citizens of Massachusetts. I could not agree more and am urging the SJC's rules committee to act with all deliberate speed to adopt corrective language in order to avoid any adverse consequences from this ruling.