Less than half of felonies come to trial

According to statistics from the Virginia Circuit Court’s caseload reporting system, since 2010, more than half the felony charges in Rappahannock County Circuit Court are resolved by guilty pleas prior to any kind of trial.

Both Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff and his predecessor, Peter Luke, share similar views when deciding whether or not to accept a plea agreement. This helps explain why, though the number of overall charges have risen significantly Rappahannock in 2012 and 2013, the number of trials has remained proportionally similar.

Chart by Dennis Brack
Chart by Dennis Brack

In 2010, a year before Luke ended his nearly 30 years as commonwealth’s attorney, 60 felony charges were brought to circuit court. Of those 60, 42 charges — more than two-thirds — were resolved in pretrial guilty pleas. Six charges were dismissed, 10 went to a bench trial and two were scheduled for jury trials.

The four-year decline in reported felony charges continued in 2011, Luke’s last year, as only 56 cases were convened. A significant number of those — 32, more than half — were resolved in pretrial pleas, while 11 charges were eventually dismissed.

Eight of the reported 33 misdemeanors were also resolved pretrial, while only three were dismissed. Only six cases were scheduled for a bench trial, and of the seven scheduled jury trials (all of which were for felony charges), only two were impaneled.

During 2012, the first year in office for Goff, the total number of felony charges grew substantially — nearly quadrupling from 56 in 2011 to 202. (The number of misdemeanor charges also grew, rising from its five-year low of 33 to 80.) Proportionally, the percentage of charges resolved in pretrial pleas stayed comparable, as 112 were resolved that way.

However, 81 charges were dismissed, by far the largest proportion of overall felonies since 2007. And the overall number of trials dropped slightly: Eight total trials — four bench and four jury trials — were scheduled; only one of those juries was actually convened.

Goff said many of the 2012 felonies involved either drug charges or metal thefts — and a significant portion were accounted for by “a slew of sex cases” (including 73 felony charges against James Carlton Benkelman, whose case — which did not go to trial — involved child pornography and the molestation of two boys.

Last year saw the overall number of felony charges drop yet again, as only 106 (half of the charges issued in 2012) were reported. Again, however, more than half were resolved prior to a trial (69), and 29 charges were dismissed.

Only six bench trials were scheduled last year, and only two jury trials (one each for a felony and misdemeanor charge) were scheduled; only one of those juries was actually impaneled.

As both Goff and Luke pointed out, however, it’s important to note that some cases “plead straight up,” regardless of the prosecution’s stance on the case. Beyond that, both attorneys revealed a bit of their decision-making process when deciding to accept a plea agreement.

“I didn’t have a formula, nothing hard and fast,” Luke said, “but I always tried to look at what was most advantageous to the Commonwealth.” Luke, who kept the prosecutor’s job for 28 years, said he always took victim’s feelings into account, but made sure they understood that the final decision belonged to him.

There were a number of factors in each case Luke said he considered, including what could happen if a case went to trial. “My worst nightmare was to try a case and win and then have an appellate court overrule that and have to try it again,” Luke said. “It could be appealed for years . . . and then you have the victim hanging out there.”

Luke said he considered the evidence in the case (or sometimes the lack thereof), the veracity of witness testimony and how well they would do testifying in front of a jury or judge. Sometimes plea agreements were agreed upon specifically so a witness didn’t have to testify.

“I placed a value on resolution,” Luke said, “especially in cases involving children.” Luke added that, particularly in cases of sexual abuse, he had to consider whether a child could successfully testify in front of a judge or jury. “I had way too many of [those cases],” Luke admitted, “and sometimes I did have a child get too scared — they would mumble or just freeze.”

Luke said he also considered the judge himself in any given case. After nearly three decades on the job, Luke said he’d been in front of nearly every judge several times and knew how he was likely to rule on a particular offense. There were, however, cases Luke said he’d never consider plea bargaining: “Any cases involving a homicide went straight to a jury trial.”

“I was never under any pressure to clear my docket,” Luke said. “I could try all my cases . . . There’s a saying, that I don’t know if I fully agree with, that plea bargaining is the lube that keeps the legal process running. The alternative is to try every single case. Nobody — anywhere — does that . . . There can certainly be bad plea bargains, but there can be good ones too.”

“The reason, and this is important, for a plea agreement is to hear someone say those words. ‘Are you pleading guilty because you are, in fact, guilty?’ ‘Yes.’ And now he’s accepted responsibility,” said Goff, who added that he’ll consider recommending toward the low end of the guidelines in order to induce a guilty plea.

He shared many of Luke’s sentiments, and said he also considers how a particular judge is likely to rule. Virginia judges, Goff noted, are unlikely to deviate substantially from the state’s guidelines.

Goff said he groups cases into several categories when deciding whether or not to accept a plea agreement. “First you have what you might call the ‘garden variety’ felony cases,” such as a possession charge for a first-time offender. “They’re gonna get what the guidelines say,” Goff said. “So sometimes there’s just no point in arguing.”

Another reason Goff said he accepts plea agreement is “the problem of proof,” because his case might have a weakness, such as an unreliable witness or general lack of evidence — things which, Goff pointed out, the public will never know about.

Goff also said he considers a plea agreement if presented with a case where adherence to the guidelines can help induce a guilty plea. If a defendant pleads guilty, gets the low end of the guidelines and probation, Goff said he views that as “more beneficial than a trial where I insist on things he’s not going to get.”

As with Luke, Goff said sometimes pleas are influenced by a desire to keep a victim from testifying, but he noted that such a deal does not preclude the victim from testifying at a sentencing hearing. “Sometimes it’s just more beneficial than a trial where I insist on things that he’s just not going to get.”

Ultimately, as Luke said: “The commonwealth’s attorney should be in the best position to judge a case.”

Two drug arrests

On Feb. 26, Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Deputy M. Dodson stopped a vehicle for a traffic violation on U.S. 211 at Long Mountain Road and charged 22-year-old Amy Estelle Jenkins of Sperryville with possession of marijuana.

Several days later, on March 2, Deputy C. Koglin stopped a vehicle for a traffic infraction on Richmond Road and arrested the driver and passenger. The driver, Lillian Jeanine Tolley, 20, of Sperryville, was charged with felony possession of more than a half ounce of marijuana with the intent to distribute. Passenger Clayton Keith Arnold Jr., 24, of Front Royal, was charged with felony possession of LSD.