Given the slew of bad lawyer shows that have aired over the past few years, I was initially skeptical about NBC's new show, The Firm, which picks up where John Grisham's novel by the same name left off. I was pleasantly surprised after watching the first episode, however, and have been thoroughly entertained ever since. One particularly captivating episode is loosely based on the "prisoner's dilemma," which you may recall from your first year of law school. This episode provides a glimpse (albeit, a dramatic glimpse) into the dymanics of plea bargaining. You can catch the full episode below.
In a way, plea bargains resemble contracts. After haggling over the value of their case, a prosecutor agrees to pursue a more lenient sentence in exchange for the defendant’s plea of guilt. The parties then present their plea bargain to a judge, who retains final authority over sentencing matters. Most of the time, the judge will simply accept the plea bargain, enter the proposed sentence, and move on to the next case on his or her docket. But not always.
Sometimes the district court will accept a plea agreement, only to later vacate it and force the defendant to stand trial. Last week a district court identified a wide, well-established circuit split over whether this practice violates the Double Jeopardy Clause’s mandate that “nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” The case, Cabrera v. Acevedo, makes the following observation:
The Supreme Court has not decided the issue of whether double jeopardy is violated when a trial court vacates a guilty plea and forces the defendant to stand trial. While it is clear that, for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment, a criminal defendant “does not have an absolute right under the Constitution to have his guilty plea accepted by the court,” North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 38 n.11 (1970), once the plea is accepted, it is unresolved whether double jeopardy prevents a court from sua sponte vacating the plea and proceeding to trial. The federal circuits are split on this question. See U.S. v. Santiago Soto, 825 F.2d 616 (1st Cir. 1987); Gilmore v. Zimmerman, 793 F.2d 564 (3rd Cir. 1986) (trial judge's sua sponte decision to vacate the defendant’s guilty plea to manslaughter and force him to stand trial for homicide charge did not violate double jeopardy.); United States v. Whitley, 759 F.2d 327, 332 (4th Cir. 1985) (“After a guilty plea has been set aside, neither retrial nor an increased sentence infringes the rights protected by the double jeopardy clause.”); United States v. Kim, 884 F.2d 189 (5th Cir. 1989); but see Morris v. Reynolds, 264 F.3d 38 (2d Cir. 2001) (“Given that a guilty plea is a conviction, and that the Double Jeopardy Clause protects against a second prosecution for the same offense after conviction, the Clause prohibits a second prosecution for the same offense following a guilty plea.” (internal quotations and citations omitted)); U.S. v. Patterson, 381 F.3d 859, 865 (9th Cir. 2004) (“although the district court is free to reject the plea agreement after accepting a guilty plea, it is not free to vacate the plea either on the government’s motion or sua sponte). Without a clear holding from the United States Supreme Court resolving the issue in Petitioner’s favor, he cannot satisfy the stringent requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2). See Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 76 (2006).
No. 11-C-1390 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 6, 2012) (parallel citations omitted).
*UPDATE: Apparently the video does not work with certain browsers. If you cannot view the video, you can watch it on NBC's website here.