The New Price of a Plea Bargain in California

By Abbie Vansickle, The Marshall Project

Some district attorneys, including San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan, have publicly pushed back on sentencing reductions. JOHN GASTALDO/REUTERS, VIA NEWSCOM

Some district attorneys, including San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan, have publicly pushed back on sentencing reductions. JOHN GASTALDO/REUTERS, VIA NEWSCOM

After the jury deadlocked in Victor Hugo Sanchez’s murder trial in February, San Diego prosecutors offered him a deal: plead guilty to manslaughter and spend just 11 years in state prison.

But there was an unusual catch. As part of the agreement, Sanchez had to sign away his right to benefit from any future legal changes, including legislation or court decisions that might reduce his sentence. He agreed.

The district attorney’s office in San Diego has proposed two more such deals, both in murder cases, but the offers were not accepted.

While the number of these pleas is small, they come at a time of tension between some “law-and-order” prosecutors and lawmakers who have been changing the state’s criminal code to try to cut the number of people in prison. Some district attorneys, including San Diego’s, have publicly pushed back on sentencing reductions.

Some lawmakers recently introduced a bill explicitly aimed at blocking the new plea deals, which they fear might become a common way to try to thwart their work. The bill’s sponsor, state Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from South Los Angeles, is pushing for a public hearing in early July.

San Diego prosecutors say they created these plea bargains to give crime victims a sense of finality. The deals will be used in “very narrow and rare circumstances that serve the interests of justice and allow victims of violent crime to have peace of mind that a court’s sentence will be carried out,” according to a statement by district attorney’s spokesman, Steve Walker. He added that if Jones-Sawyer’s proposal becomes law, “we would certainly respect and follow it.”

Robert Weisberg, a criminal law professor at Stanford, said that the deals could raise constitutional questions.

Pleas must be knowing and voluntary, he said, and it’s not clear if a person can give up rights to something that doesn’t exist yet.

“This one is pushing the envelope as far as it can go,” Weisberg said. “It’s a pretty slick and aggressive prosecutorial move.”

In March 2013, authorities arrested Sanchez in Mexico and accused him of killing a San Diego woman in 2005. His case went to trial last February, but the jury couldn’t reach a decision.

Sanchez is serving his sentence at the California Institution for Men, according to records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He did not respond to an interview request.

Katherine Braner, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Public Defender Office, declined to discuss Sanchez’s case, citing attorney-client privilege, but she described it as “a very unique situation.”

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