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Sunday, May 05, 2019 1:00 am

Victims: Plea deals unsatisfying

Attorneys on both sides say they're necessary

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

When perhaps the county's most notorious killer was ordered last year to spend 80 years in prison, the mother of the victim wasn't happy.

Janet Tinsley told an Allen County judge in December the sentence spelled out in a plea agreement between prosecutors and defense attorneys was not justice. April Tinsley, 8, was murdered by John D. Miller, 59, and the girl's mother wanted revenge.

“You took her life, and we want yours,” Tinsley said in court. “But, unfortunately, we're not getting that.”

Miller strangled and sexually assaulted April in 1988, and the case went unsolved for 30 years before he was arrested in July at his home in Grabill. He will likely die behind prison walls, but the opposition to the deal that paved his way there is common among victims of crimes, their families and advocates for tougher sentences for criminals.

The sentences are too light, they say. Prosecutors let those accused of crimes off easy and use plea agreements to close cases, padding conviction statistics, they argue.

But defense attorneys and prosecutors say there's more to it. They must carefully weigh the facts of the case, the likelihood of conviction at trial, the cost of pushing forward with the case, sparing victims the ordeal of testifying or sitting through emotional testimony at trial and innumerable other variables.

Moving more cases to trial would clog a court system already filled with cases awaiting resolution, lawyers say.

“It's just fundamentally, mathematically impossible to not have plea agreements,” said Anthony Churchward, a Fort Wayne defense attorney who began his career as a prosecutor.

Churchward defended Miller, who was ordered to serve back-to-back prison terms of 50 and 30 years for murder and child molesting. The case against Miller was convincing – he confessed to police and DNA evidence linked him to the crimes – and Churchward talked to prosecutors about securing an agreement designed to keep him behind bars.

Miller has health problems and had difficulty walking to and from court hearings and was prosecuted under the law as it stood in 1988. That meant life without parole wasn't an option. So Churchward and prosecutors sought a deal that essentially was a life sentence but would spare the public the expense of a drawn-out legal case and the family of an upsetting trial.

“(Moving to trial) doesn't serve anybody's interests,” he said of the case. “It would be expensive, it would be time-consuming. It wouldn't benefit anybody.”

Lawyers including Churchward are sensitive to the feelings of victims and their families in criminal cases, but they maintain those concerns are just some of the things they must consider.

At Miller's sentencing hearing in December, Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards said she might have sought the death penalty if the case had been solved 30 years earlier.

“The (family's) anguish is certainly justified,” she said then.

But factors including his age led Richards to consider and agree instead to the long prison term.

The decision represents a complicated balancing act for lawyers on both sides of a case. Each examines what is feasible and allowable under the law while also considering the wishes and feelings of those most affected by the outcome.

It's a process that can be lengthy for more serious crimes such as murder and rape but quicker for others. Lower-level crimes are resolved through deals more often, local lawyers say and state data show.

“There's no standard plea,” Churchward said. “It's very, very difficult to compare cases.”

Plea agreements also have largely become standard practice in Allen County and around the country. A 2011 report on plea bargains published by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance referred to the agreements as “a defining, if not the defining, feature” of the justice system.

Experts estimate between 90% and 95% of cases in the U.S. are resolved with plea agreements, and local lawyers say that's probably the case in Allen County. It's difficult to determine exactly how many local cases end with plea agreements because state data includes things such as preliminary charges – which are dismissed after 72 hours – and that skews the number of cases filed and disposed.

Allen County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Mike McAlexander said more complicated cases such as killings or sex crimes are less likely to end with pleas. The more complex the case, the more likely it goes to trial, he said.

McAlexander, who started as a prosecutor in 1984, said his office consults victims of crimes and their families about plea deals. Victims have pushed back on what they consider light prison terms, he said.

“Usually, the plea agreements are on the lower-level offenses,” he said. “I think it's because of the stakes involved. Generally, there's usually an attempt to try to see if there's some middle ground for a plea.”

Critics of plea bargaining argue defendants would fare better without it because their cases would be handled impartially – by judges and without negotiation among defense attorneys and prosecutors.

“Prosecutorial budgets would only allow prosecution in those cases where there was strong evidence to convict,” the Justice Department report states in a section dedicated to critiques of the practice. “Thus, fewer innocent defendants would be coerced into guilty pleas. In addition, violent and chronic offenders would be less likely to receive lenient punishment.”

For those affected by crimes, plea agreements are not simply negotiations but deeply personal, life-altering documents.

A Fort Wayne woman who told police she was raped in 2016 navigated a nearly three-year legal odyssey in which she saw her attacker plead guilty twice.

The first guilty plea – the agreement with prosecutors called for a prison sentence of up to four years – was withdrawn, and he was sentenced in April to 2 years on probation.

The woman told investigators she was raped by Paul Babocsai in July 2016, after she arrived at his apartment to clean it. The home was clean, she said, and she asked what work needed to be done.

Babocsai – listed at 5 feet 9 inches and 310 pounds on Allen County's sex offender registry – held her down and raped her, a probable cause affidavit states.

He pleaded guilty in March 2017 but claimed in court documents filed the next month the plea was entered without the advice of his lawyer, “was not made knowingly and voluntarily” and “was made under duress and mistake of fact regarding ... bond.”

Babocsai pleaded guilty in March of this year to felony sexual battery, and two rape charges were dropped as part of the agreement with prosecutors.

The 36-year-old woman said at a sentencing hearing she is devastated.

“I have waited almost three years for justice, and today I feel violated all over again,” she said. “Ten years on the registry isn't enough for what you did to me.”

The Journal Gazette does not name victims of sex crimes without their permission.

She said in an interview she had little interaction with lawyers and was left out of the loop as the plea agreement was finalized. She said she is disappointed with the sentence.

“That's not enough, because (sexual battery) is not what he did,” she said.

McAlexander and defense attorney William Lebrato each said questions about Babocsai's mental health and culpability led in part to the plea agreement. Each described the agreement as a compromise.

Stacey Davis, a leader of local victim advocacy group JAVA – Justice, Accountability and Victim Advocacy – is critical of plea agreements but said they are a necessary part of the justice system.

Her son, Codi McCann, was shot to death in 2016, and the alleged killer – Quentin Stewart – is awaiting trial. Davis said she is prepared to hear grisly details of the shooting at trial but understands that other families might not be willing or able to do that.

She said prosecutors should use plea deals more effectively. Prosecutors should use them more often to try to persuade defendants who might have information about other crimes to testify in those cases, she said.

“(Plea agreements) are a tool the prosecutor can use,” Davis said, “but they're abused and not used as effectively as they could be.”

State data shows more than 1,700 felony cases were resolved through plea agreements last year in Allen Superior Court, where three judges and a magistrate are assigned to criminal cases. Lawyers argue taking each of those to trial – which would likely take at least two days for each case – would cause the legal system to grind to a halt.

“They just keep the system flowing,” Lebrato said of plea bargains.

Churchward, the defense attorney who represented April Tinsley's killer, said plea agreements bring resolution and closure to cases.

“Any legal dispute, there's always room for a negotiated settlement,” he said. “It's necessary.”

mleblanc@jg.net