Plea deals, common in Fresno County courts, a hot button in DA race

The Fresno BeeMay 29, 2014 

Fresno County District Attorney incumbent, Elizabeth Egan, left, and candidate Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp.

SPECIAL TO THE BEE

Of every 100 felony cases filed by Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan's office, about 98 are settled before going to trial.

Almost all of those 98 cases end the same way -- with some sort of deal cut between the defendant and a prosecutor in Egan's office. It is commonly called a plea agreement.

"Plea bargaining is a fact of life," Egan says. "It is a plea negotiation that happens in most cases."

But while such deals are commonplace, they have become a defining issue in the contentious district attorney campaign that pits Egan against one of her former deputy prosecutors, Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp.

Egan has run advertisements on television and radio, and sent out campaign mail, alleging that Smittcamp wants to "increase plea bargaining" and that she "irresponsibly plea bargained" a domestic violence case against a defendant who later was involved in a fatal alcohol-related car accident.

Smittcamp accuses Egan of misstating her position and said that increasing plea bargaining isn't even feasible because that's the way almost every case already ends.

"She takes any opportunity that she can to twist up the truth to benefit her politically," Smittcamp said of Egan's campaign ads.

Smittcamp said she wants to give prosecutors the power to negotiate deals if they think it results in a just verdict. If the prosecutors aren't micromanaged and believe they have the power to reach agreements, it could speed up the justice system and, in turn, free up badly needed jail beds.

The issue of plea bargaining has become even more pointed after Egan's office -- on the heels of her criticism of Smittcamp -- struck deals in two well-publicized cases this past week.

In one, 27-year-old Fresno resident Gabriela Espinosa had been facing a first-degree murder charge for drowning her infant son in a motel bathtub four years ago.

She instead pleaded no contest to a felony manslaughter charge.

The first-degree murder charge is a crime that could have sent her to prison for the rest of her life, but she now faces 19 years and eight months in prison on the lesser charge.

In the other case, four Fresno gang members who were caught on videotape severely beating two men outside the Crossroads nightclub in March will likely get felony probation after pleading guilty to an assault charge.

Prosecutors in exchange dropped a second assault charge, as well an additional felony charge against each of the four defendants.

Attorneys for the men said they accepted the plea deal because they were promised no time in state prison.

Egan declined to comment on the plea deals because she said the defendants in both have yet to be sentenced, but such deals are cut daily by her prosecutors in the Fresno County Superior Court.

In fact, judicial experts say, without such agreements, the local court system would grind to a halt because it wouldn't have the resources to handle the increased trials. There's not enough money, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, courtrooms.

Still, that reality hasn't stopped the plea agreement debate from raging on in campaign advertisements.

In the DA's race, it was sparked by the case of the People v. Ricardo Rojas.

Smittcamp prosecuted Ricardo Rojas in 2011 for assaulting his girlfriend. The case ended in a plea deal: Rojas was sentenced to time served and was freed on felony probation.

Egan has built an ad campaign around the case because last November, while allegedly driving drunk, Rojas was involved in a collision at Cedar and Bullard avenues in Fresno that resulted in the death of a woman. He was arrested and is in the Fresno County Jail on $313,000 bail.

But Smittcamp said the case perfectly illustrates the challenges prosecutors face daily in their jobs.

In that case, both Rojas and his girlfriend were drunk. After he hit her, she retaliated by hitting him in the head with wine bottle. The girlfriend was a reluctant witness, and there was no 911 tape, meaning her testimony was critical to the prosecution.

Still, Rojas pleaded to felony probation, and Smittcamp says given the numerous challenges in prosecuting him, that's a great outcome. A jury could have set Rojas free. Instead, he got a felony on his record, she said, which will double his prison term if found guilty in the latest case.

"There wasn't a judge in that courthouse who was going to send him to prison," Smittcamp said of Rojas.

But Egan stands by her contention that Smittcamp erred in the Rojas case.

Egan admitted that she was Smittcamp's ultimate boss at the time, and the "buck stops with me." But she said Smittcamp led the domestic violence prosecution team at the time and should have known better than to cut the deal.

"She did not clear it with me," Egan said. "There would have been much further discussion about it, obviously."

In fact, Egan said she wants to go to trial more, but resources are a barrier.

"If we had the staff, if we had the jail space, we would work every case," she said. "The bottom line is when you bargain with a defendant, you are also bargaining with community safety."

She admits that as it now stands, the resources -- money and people -- aren't there to make it happen.

Smittcamp said she is a realist when it comes to plea bargains. Trials only happen, she said, when prosecutors and the defense attorney can't reach an agreement and settle a case.

She also criticized Egan for highlighting the Rojas case, which is pending, when she has declined to comment on other plea deals cut by her office that also are still working their way through the justice system.

Egan said she only commented in depth on the initial Rojas domestic violence case, which has been closed. She hasn't talked in detail on the new, still pending, case.

But she did defend using it in her re-election campaign.

"This is a campaign issue," she said of plea bargaining. "It is about our direction as DA. We are held accountable about the way we feel about plea bargaining."

Smittcamp had a much different opinion on Egan using the Rojas domestic violence case to highlight plea bargaining.

"It was despicable," she said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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