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Q&A with Marty Jackley: How does a plea deal go down?

The Mitchell Republic reached out to former South Dakota State’s Attorney Marty Jackley to ask why plea deals are offered and often utilized.

Marty Jackley speaks at the McGovern Civic Engagement Forum at Dakota Wesleyan University in 2017 during his gubernatorial campaign. (Evan Hendershot / Republic)
S.D. gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Marty Jackley, center, speaks at Tuesday's McGovern Civic Engagement Forum at Dakota Wesleyan University. Other governor hopefuls in attendance were Terry LaFleur, left, and Lora Hubbel, right. Not pictured are U.S. House of Representative candidates Dusty Johnson, Secretary of State Shantel Krebs and Tim Bjorkman. (Evan Hendershot / Republic)

Go directly to jail, do not pass go and do not collect $200 — unless you can negotiate a plea deal.

Plea deals are a tool used by prosecutors in over 90% of criminal convictions in the United States, according to the Department of Justice, often to avoid heading to trial — which can be costly and force a victim to relive their trauma through testifying.

Prosecutors often offer plea deals in an effort to receive a guilty plea, but that plea usually comes to a lesser crime typically leading to public confusion surrounding the justice system.

In 2017, Mason Buhl entered a plea deal to plead guilty only to attempted murder for shooting Harrisburg High School principal Kevin Lein in 2015. His other charges were dismissed, and he was sentenced to 15 years probation and 25 years in prison suspended.

Locally, Robert Ladenburger took a plea deal in August, dismissing a first-degree murder charge and instead pleading guilty to manslaughter in connection with an August 2020 death of another man. His sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 5 in a Davison County courtroom.

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Though it may seem to the untrained eye that some offenders are given a “get out of jail free” card, plea deals are just another tool in a prosecutor’s toolbox.

The Mitchell Republic reached out to former South Dakota State’s Attorney Marty Jackley to ask why plea deals are offered and often utilized.

Jackley — a member of the State Bar of South Dakota for over 25 years — served as the United States Attorney for South Dakota from 2006 to 2009, and worked for a decade as South Dakota’s Attorney General.

Jackley was defeated by Kristi Noem in the 2018 gubernatorial primary race and is currently a candidate for South Dakota’s Attorney General in the 2022 election. He currently serves both as the Haakon County State’s Attorney and a special prosecutor for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.

What is a plea deal and how common are they?

“A plea bargain is an agreement between a defendant and a prosecutor in which a defendant agrees to plead guilty to certain charges in exchange for an agreement by the prosecutor to dismiss one or more charges, reduce a charge to a less serious offense or recommend to the judge a specific sentence. The judge has to accept the plea agreement for it to be valid and the plea agreement does not bind the judge to a particular sentence unless the Judge agrees before the plea is entered, which is fairly rare. If the case involves a victim, the victim is entitled to notice of the agreement and the victim is further provided the opportunity to have input on the agreement with the prosecutor and ultimately the judge. While the Judge is not permitted to be involved in plea negotiations, the judge is required to ultimately accept or reject any final plea agreements. A significant majority of all criminal cases in federal and state court are resolved through plea negotiations.”

Why do prosecutors offer plea deals?

“Prosecutors may offer a plea deal for a variety of reasons such as avoiding requiring victims or witnesses to testify regarding difficult matters particularly if they are young. Prosecutors also take into account challenges that may exist with respect to certain evidence or risks associated with obtaining a conviction by a unanimous jury at trial. Prosecutors often are required to take into account limited resources they are provided and the ability to fairly resolve cases in order to avoid unnecessary use of taxpayer resources.”

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Are defendants entitled to a plea deal?

“A defendant is not entitled to a plea agreement. Defendants are entitled to make a plea offer to the prosecutor. They are also entitled to enter a plea of guilty to all the pending charges.”

How are plea deals negotiated?

“A prosecutor normally reviews the evidence and witness statements gathered by law enforcement, and discusses the case and potential plea offers with the victim as well as the law enforcement officers involved in the investigation. Once that is accomplished either the prosecutor can extend a plea offer to the defendant, or consider any plea offers that the defendant has provided.”

How does a prosecutor determine if a plea deal is appropriate?

“Every case is unique. The prosecutor weighs the gravity of the charges, the input of the victim (unless it is a victimless crime), any input from law enforcement involved in the investigation and then determines whether justice would be served by either offering or accepting a plea offer. Because the prosecutor involved in the plea negotiations takes into account all of this important information, it is not generally appropriate for other prosecutors to ‘second guess’ the plea negotiation process when they are not fully involved with that case.”

What is a judge’s discretion in sentencing under a plea deal?

“Under most plea agreements the judge has the ultimate discretion to provide a sentence within the maximum penalties provided by state law. In limited instances, a case may justify a judge agreeing to be bound by a recommendation of the parties to a particular sentence, which is referred to as a ‘binding plea agreement’ — but that is fairly rare and at the judge’s discretion.”

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Do you feel that justice is still served when a defendant accepts a plea deal?

“In many instances justice is or can be served through plea agreements. The majority of all plea agreements allow the judge the ultimate sentencing authority after weighing and considering the gravity of the offense, the conduct of the defendant, the effect the case has had on the victim, the recommendations of the prosecutor and defense attorney and statements from both the victim and the defendant. However, there do exist instances where a plea agreement may result in a defendant pleading guilty to some offense that he or she did not (commit) for a variety of reasons, or instances when a guilty defendant does not receive a significant enough conviction or sentence. This is why the judge’s ultimate authority to accept or reject plea agreements and discretion to not be bound by sentencing recommendations of the prosecutor and defense attorney is an important part of the plea agreement process.”

A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021 and now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on regional news that impacts the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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