There’s something to be said for plea bargaining. It makes a certain amount of sense for a prosecutor, especially one with a weak case, to let the accused plead guilty to a lesser charge in order to avoid an expensive, protracted trial – and the possibility of acquittal.
Of course, there’s always the danger that an innocent party may be coerced into a plea for fear of being railroaded on a more serious charge.
There’s also the possibility that a guilty party can arrange -- through fear, favor, or other means of influence -- to cop a plea for a sentence far less onerous than prosecutorial pragmatism warrants.
Charged with possessing heroin and using it while possessing firearms, former St. Clair County Judge Michael Cook pled guilty after negotiating an 18-month sentence with prosecutors. Sean McGilvery, Cook’s heroin and cocaine connection, negotiated a 10-year sentence.
Is either deal equitable? Does it make sense that McGilvery’s sentence would be nearly seven times longer than Cook’s? Would either of the accused get off easy because he has connections in the court system and possibly knowledge of other local lawyers and judges with habits they’d like to keep hidden?
Those are just some of the questions that citizens of St. Clair County are asking – and have a right to ask. The answers might come out in a trial, however awkward and inconvenient. Would those answers be safely buried in plea agreements?
Chief Judge David Herndon concluded that no Southern District judge could hear the case impartially and dispassionately, and he gave the assignment to senior Judge Joe Billy McDade from the Central District in Peoria. McDade accepted Cook’s plea, but not the sentence Cook thought he had secured for himself.
Cook now has the option of withdrawing the plea and standing trial or agreeing to a harsher sentence that Judge McDade might find acceptable.
A trial might be better for all concerned.