Oral arg. – Miss.Ct. of App. – April 2, 2014 – Why would anyone plead guilty to murder?

There is only one penalty for persons convicted of murder and that’s life.  M.C.A. § 97-3-21.   Not life without parole but life.  It might as well be lwop because a separate parole statute takes away any right to parole for persons convicted of violent offenses. M.C.A. § 47-7-3(1)(h).  So, there’s no incentive to plead guilty to murder unless you suffer from a morbid fear of being tried.  Typically, if you are charged with murder and offered a deal, the deal is for you to plead guilty to manslaughter and the state will recommend a sentence within the parameters of the manslaughter statute.  And those parameters are broad.   “(1) Except as otherwise provided in this section, any person convicted of manslaughter shall be fined in a sum not less than Five Hundred Dollars ($ 500.00), or imprisoned in the county jail not more than one (1) year, or both, or in the custody of the Department of Corrections not less than two (2) years, nor more than twenty (20) years.”  M.C.A. § 97-3-25.  

Cochran v. State, to be argued Wednesday, April 2, 2014, in the Miss.Ct. of Appeals is a motion for post conviction relief wherein the defendant, Michael Ray Crosby, pleaded guilty to murder and got the only sentence he could get: life.  The victim was his wife Donna.  The couple, married for twenty-five years, had been fighting about financial stuff  and  on August 11, 2010, their arguing reached the point where, according to Cochran’s brief,  Donna threw a hammer at Michael (which missed him), he grabbed a pistol from a drawer  and told Donna to “just shoot him.”  Donna got the gun and threw it at Michael.  Michael picked up the gun and shot Donna twice, killing her.  A month after he was indicted for murder,  Michael pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life.  Two years later, represented by new counsel, he filed a motion for post conviction relief.   A hearing was held in front of the same judge he took the  plea (that’s how it is done) and the judge, Marcus Gordon denied relief.  An appeal was filed and it is set to be argued Wednesday.

Cochran raises two issues:  that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to make sure that Cochran was competent and not under a mental disability that would affect his ability to make a knowing and voluntary plea. Cochran argues that he was in shock and grieving over having killed his wife and felt like giving up.    Cochran also argues that the trial court abused its discretion in allowing the plea. According to the brief,  Judge Gordon stated that he had not seen anything like this in 32 years on the bench.   Cochran argues that the Court should have made further inquiry into the plea given the unusual circumstances (I assume by this it is meant the fact that no one in their right mind would plead guilty to murder since there is no incentive whatsoever to do so).    

This is a sad case.  Guilty pleas are hard to overturn.  The defendant signs a petition prior to the plea acknowledging that no one promised him anything, that he is not being coerced, etc.,  During the plea colloquy, the trial judge goes through the same matters.  Typically, then, when a defendant comes in later and says “I was promised x if I pleaded”, this will be belied by both the the petition and the colloquy.   In this case, the facts as described by Cochran  would certainly seem to support this being a case of heat of passion manslaughter.   If you do any criminal law, this argument could be enlightening. 

Cochran’s brief

State’s brief 

Cochran’s reply brief

Website where argument can be viewed Wednesday, April 2, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

 

Justice Ishee asks some good questions regarding whether the record was sufficient to establish a factual basis for the plea. Given that the plea petition and colloquy foreclose the usual issues defendants complain about once they have pled (“I didn’t know the judge could sentence me to whatever he wanted to”, etc.), this – the factual basis for the plea – is the one issue that actually exists from time to time. The factual basis can be established by the state reciting a proffer of the facts and/or the defendant admitting to the facts. However, the mere fact that the defendant pleads guilty is not sufficient to establish the factual basis of the crime. See Porter v. State, 126 So.3d 68 (Miss.App. 2013). Porter is also useful for explaining something potential clients don’t always understand – that if, on the unlikely chance you do set aside your plea, your reward is that you are back at square one, i.e. facing trial on the charges you pleaded to.

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