Friday, April 30, 2004
C.A.: Judge Improperly Pressured Defendant to Accept Plea Bargain
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A San Diego Superior Court judge went beyond the role of neutral arbiter in pressuring an accused child molester to accept a plea offer, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Judge Frank Brown abused his discretion when he denied Ronald Weaver’s post-sentencing motion to withdraw his plea, Justice Patricia Benke wrote for Div. One. Brown said he felt he had been coerced into accepting an 18-year prison term on four counts of committing lewd acts and six counts of attempting to commit lewd acts.
Brown’s “histrionic monologues” warning of the consequences of going to trial, not only for the defendant but for the victims, “were not the stuff of mediation or facilitation,” Benke explained. “They were the stuff of advocacy.”
Weaver was charged in 2001 following an investigation into complaints by the mother and grandmother of a 5-year-old girl. The women, who described Weaver as a family friend, told authorities that Weaver had touched the child improperly at the grandmother’s house.
They also said that Weaver had been obsessed with the girl and had apparently molested her on prior occasions. Their complaint led to the reopening of a previous investigation into claims that Weaver had molested another girl when she was between the ages of six and nine, and Weaver was charged with crimes against both girls.
Following the preliminary hearing, police executed a search warrant at Weaver’s home and seized his personal computer. The search of the computer revealed more than 1,800 pornographic images appearing to be of young children, as well as bookmarks for sites dealing with pedophilia.
Prosecutors then moved to increase bail from $50,000 to $250,000, and told the court they intended to add a child pornography charge and a multiple-victims allegation under the “One Strike” sex-crimes law, which would have subjected Weaver to a minimum sentence of 15 years to life.
At a pretrial hearing, Brown suggested that a plea bargain would be appropriate. He warned Weaver that he would have a difficult time before a jury.
“As soon as the first little girl in the pink dress sits down, you know, then you’re going to see the real victim,” the judge told the defendant. “You’ll see the real impact.”
He went on to say that Weaver would be “taking a big risk” by going to trial, cited specific examples of defendants who suffered adverse consequences after turning down plea offers, and suggested that Weaver would be re-victimizing the girls by forcing a trial at which they would have to testify.
Brown also granted the bail motion, calling Weaver a flight risk and a danger to the community.
At a subsequent hearing, Brown denied defense motions to try the charges as to each victim separately and to exclude the computer images, which his lawyer argued were part of the preparation of Weaver’s defense and thus privileged. The judge also suggested that other children who had accused Weaver of molesting them would be allowed to testify at the trial.
After rejecting several previous plea offers, Weaver agreed, on the scheduled trial date, to enter a plea in exchange for a sentence of between 12 years and 20 years. Brown told the defendant he did the right thing, opining that the prosecution’s evidence was overwhelming.
In his subsequent motion to withdraw the plea, Weaver said he felt that Brown—and to a lesser extent, his attorneys—had pressured him into accepting it. He said he was afraid of the possible life sentence, and that he erroneously believed that his character evidence would secure a sentence near the bottom of the agreed-upon range.
He also said he felt he had no choice but to enter the plea after the judge agreed to admit the pornographic images, even though Brown said he would limit the number of images and give a limiting instruction on the purposes for which they could be considered.
Brown should have granted the motion to withdraw the plea, Benke said.
“The judicial change of ‘hats’ in this case is head spinning,” the justice wrote. “At any given time he seemed to fill the role of judge, jury, defense counsel, prosecutor, psychiatrist, social worker and victims’ advocate. While in some objective sense it may be that the judge, a person of long experience, did know what was best for everyone, that is beside the point.”
While California, unlike the federal system, allows judges to involve themselves in plea discussions, this case illustrates the danger when a judge intrudes too deeply into the process, Benke commented.
“Certainly it was the judge’s intention to assist everyone by expressing in the clearest terms his assessment of the case,” she wrote. “But, as the cases and commentators cited above have repeatedly noted, there are great risks in the trial court involving itself in the plea negotiation process. As that involvement increases in intensity, the risks become greater.”
Brown’s “highly inappropriate” conduct, she said, gave Weaver legitimate reason to believe that he had to accept a plea in order to avoid an unfair trial.
The panel ordered that the case be sent to a different judge on remand.
The case is People v. Weaver, D039114.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company