Memphis, Tenn. — They are the deals that courts are made of, plea deals negotiated to keep a case from ever going to trial.
But many times plea deals leave victims feeling victimized again.
WREG has been digging into the problem and shows why some say it’s contributing to growing crime.
Thousands of cases go through Shelby County Criminal Court at 201 Poplar every year. But you may be surprised almost none of them ever go to trial.
“The vast majority of cases are negotiated and guilty pleas entered,” says Defense attorney Leslie Ballin. He has 40 years of criminal law under his belt, but admits only 2% of the cases his office handles every year reach trial.
“When I consult with clients and tell them this is what you are facing if convicted at a trial. This is what your offer is. It`s your choice,” says Ballin.
But a trial is what some ‘victims’ want.
“We have not grieved for our son. We have been fighting all this time,” says Tara Thomas. Her 22-year-old son Christopher was shot and killed in February of 2015.
Two brothers were arrested within days, but for two years it was back and forth in court.
“They said they were gonna take a plea deal. We disagreed. The first plea deal the driver was gonna walk,” says Thomas.
Then minutes before court the prosecutor announced another plea.
“She called us into a small room and told us what the plea was. We are going with 15 years and that`s it. At 100%. Yes we were upset. We did not agree with it,” says Thomas.
The D.A.s Office went forward with the plea…giving brothers Roderick and Martel Frison 15 year sentences.
“It makes me feel very angry. It`s not fair to the families to not have any say so in these plea deals,” says Thomas.
Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, says out of the 180,000 to 200,000 cases the D.A. handles every year, pleas are the norm.
“The large majority of the cases are resolved by guilty plea. We only try about 160 to 200 jury trials every year,” says Weirich.
She says sometimes there isn’t enough proof to convict.
“We may have the greatest case in the world on paper. But when we start trying to track down witnesses and get them to come down here and testify to what they saw and heard it’s a different story if they don’t want to cooperate,” says Weirich.
Defense attorneys get an earful on plea deals too when their clients want to go to trial.
“He had been asking for an evidentiary hearing. He has been asking to go to trial,” says D`Lynne Colbert. Her son Mario is in jail for a 2016 shooting at Country Squire Apartments.
Police say he, Jalen Harvey and Aaron Marr walked into a party and Marr started shooting into the air. An 18 year old was hit by a bullet and died.
Colbert`s son says he never fired a bullet.
“You have no witnesses saying that my son shot anything. Why wouldn`t he not go to trial? Especially if he didn`t do it. And nobody is saying that e done it. His own co-defendants are saying he didn`t do it,” says Colbert.
Now she says the D.A and even her son’s lawyer is putting pressure on her son to take a plea to serve 13 years.
“He is saying no I am not gonna sign for that mama because I didn`t do it. He says he wants to go to trial. I didn`t kill anybody,” says Colbert.
Mario Colbert`s attorney wouldn’t discuss his case and wouldn’t comment when we asked if he was pushing Colbert to plea.
Attorney Micheal Working, who isn’t representing any clients mentioned here, says defendants have the final say in a plea.
“Ethically only the defendant can make a decision to accept a plea deal or go to trial. Not the lawyer,” says Working. “I have had 3 murder cases in the last two years where the family rejected my client going to prison for 15 years. They rejected it and demanded a trial. We went to trial and my client was found not guilty and did no time in prison.”
One recent plea deal sentence was the 30 years Sherra Wright got for facilitating the murder of her ex-husband basketball standout Lorenzen Wright.
She will only have to do 30% of that before she is eligible for parole. With time served and good behavior she could get out in roughly 9-10 years.
In court everyone was said to be in agreement.
But listen to Lorenzen Wright’s mom, Deborah Marion, now.
“That is insane to me. It don`t make no sense. This plea stuff is like killing you all over again. You still ain`t got no relief,” says Marion. “You can`t tell me 30 years on the phone and then come tell me she might be eligible for parole in 7.”
Deborah Marion says she would have taken her chances on a trial.
“They don`t understand. I ain`t gonna ever have my son on earth here with me no more. So how am I gonna walk around with her with a chance of getting out?” says Marion in tears.
District Attorney Amy Weirich says families are told the number of years given are rarely the number of years actually served because inmates get multiple days credit for each day they are locked up.
“To me it underscores how great the need is for this to be clearer for this to be simple and for this to be truthful for victims and for all of society,” says Weirich. She says there needs to be a change in state law.
Tara Thomas is also now speaking to groups about how the legal system needs changes.
“If we really want the crime to end maybe we should stop making these plea deals and give stiffer penalties. We know we were done wrong. The justice system failed us. They failed us horribly,” says Thomas.
A local organization called ‘Always Giving Back’ is pushing to get a local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children in Memphis.
They say it would help families understand the legal process and things like plea deals.